Bach's St John Passion BBC Proms


Bach's St John Passion

John Butt directs his Dunedin Consort in a complete performance of Bach's powerful St John Passion, with Nicolas Mulroy as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Jesus.


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Transcript


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Time travel is our objective tonight, so buckle up

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because we are going back almost 300 years.

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It's all to get closer to the world of Johann Sebastian Bach

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and his radical, revolutionary and ravishing St John Passion.

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Tonight, The Royal Albert Hall will feel like a different

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Rather than the concert hall we all know and love,

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John Butt and his Dunedin Consort are going to transport us

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into an 18th-century German church so we can experience the mighty

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power of Bach's St John Passion as its first listeners did.

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There will even be some sing-a-long moments.

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I am Richard Coles and I can't wait for this total immersion.

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We are about to be enveloped in Bach's retelling of the final

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days of Christ's life and His crucifixion.

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The St John Passion is not an opera, but it is a highly theatrical,

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and heart-wrenching encounter with the characters of the Gospel

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I'm Hannah French and tonight the Dunedin Consort are recreating

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elements of the Good Friday Service for which the St John Passion

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was originally written, the audience here will sing chorales

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around the Passion as the congregation would have done

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in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig in 1724.

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Tonight's ensemble are all playing original 18th-century instruments

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or replicas so these were the instruments,

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and the sounds, this music would have originally been heard on.

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But Bach would have heard the SJP performed by school boys

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and university students in Leipzig, HE could only dream of a performance

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in the hands of the Dunedin Consort, luckily for US these musicians

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specialise in the business of sonic time travel.

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But one thing that the performers here tonight cannot replicate

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is that when the St John Passion was first performed,

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nobody in the town of Leipzig would have heard any

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During Lent, the churches all fell silent and then on Good Friday that

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silence would have been shattered with the music we are about to hear.

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The congregation would not have heard anything

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It was a truly revolutionary piece of music with its operatic arias,

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its visceral focus on Christ's suffering, sparkling polyphony

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Many of you may know the more famous older brother,

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The St Matthew Passion, for me the St John Passion is a much

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Before the first part of the Passion, we are going to hear

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the Organ Prelude and Chorale, the audience here in

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the Royal Albert Hall, the congregation, will join in.

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These two pieces will present The Passion in the way it would have

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been introduced in church in Bach's time, evoking how its very

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The Passion's opening chorus sets the scene,

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as the choir asks to be shown that Christ is the true Son of God before

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we plunge straight into the action as Jesus is arrested in the Garden

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of Gethsemane The Role of Jesus is sung this evening

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by Matthew Brook and the Evangelist by Nicholas Mulroy.

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That was the Chorale Lamm Gottes bringing the whole

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of The Royal Albert Hall together in song in response to Bach's

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portrayal of the disciple Peter's denial and disowning of Christ

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at the end of the first part of the St John Passion.

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What a stirring performance by the Dunedin Consort

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Tonight's soloists are Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist

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and Matthew Brook as Jesus, with Sofi Bevan, Tim Mead,

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A shattering moment, isn't it, to leave this narrative. We have had

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Peter's denial of Jesus and his dejection at the end of that, and

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all of a sudden we break for ice cream! It is a weird, jarring

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moment. It is. You have hit exactly on the mark of Hart's genius, the

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Masters the mix of old and new. Setting the Passion to music was a

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centuries-old tradition. Having a chorus and a tenor narrating. What

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Bach does is he injects this drama across the score, particularly in

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these arias and duets. More emotion, real characters with everyday

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feeling. People can actually respond to it. He wants to stir us in our

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deepest parts. You have the whole audience congregation joining

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together. You have the whole community coming together and

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sharing this intensely personal moment. It is. It is very much the

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spirit of the 18th century, the way in which artists didn't just perform

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for passive entertainment but they reached out and people in their

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audiences. Audiences therefore had very physical experiences of their

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music so will they pulled their audiences in. You shared the pain

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and the enthusiasm and you are very much part of it.

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We caught up with John Butt earlier to find out what made him want to

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stage the St John Passion in this way.

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Bach most of his choral works when he was actually working at a school.

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He was essentially reliant on school pupils for vocalists. Boys between

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the age of eight and 23. He also had the talent pipers, town musicians.

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These were generally very skilled players. Bach himself came from that

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environment. Then of course students at the University filled in the

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gaps, particularly in the orchestra. It was quite a motley crew. The

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trick today of course is to try and get back something of the roughness

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of the schoolchildren. Obviously if it is to refine, you lose the

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rhetoric of the peace. -- if it is to refine. A lot of modern

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techniques of singing and playing, they tend to go over the cracks as

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it were. My job is to partly try and encourage people to relive that

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rhetorical aspect of the original performance, but actually probably

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at a much higher up local level than Bach ever imagined. -- higher local

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level. My main interest is to see how people react to the pacing,

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spacing and flow of Bach's music within this larger whole. How does

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it actually strike the individual listener when you hear it in a

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context like this? When one thinks of Bach's Leipzig, his congregations

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were often a couple of thousand obviously stuffed into a smaller

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space. So the volume of people is not that different in terms of scale

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from what Bach might have had. The other thing I'm very interested in

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finding out through this performance is how, when the audience who are

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invited to sing Chorales at the beginning, middle and end, whether

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that changes their receptivity. How they actually feel listening, having

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felt that on bodies resonating to their own voices. As Forest St John

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Passion is concerned, the thing that is really striking about it is its

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relentlessness. Once you step into it, you can't get off it. It is a

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bit like getting on a roller-coaster and just as the door closes you

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think, did I really want to do that? Its expressive range is absolutely

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enormous, it is one of the most frighteningly expressive. It is a

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frightening piece, in many ways. It has many moments of beauty, too. The

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impact of the piece is absolutely devastating. What we've got ahead

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now is actually most of the Passion narrative. We go through the trial,

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the crucifixion, having been taken along the roller-coaster, suddenly

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the piece slows us down and takes us almost lower than our everyday life.

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It makes us faster than slower. In some ways, all of the drama is yet

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to come. John Butt, musical director

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of Edinburgh's Dunedin Consort. Now if we were in church

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in Bach's Leipzig, following the chorales,

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organ preludes and the first part of The Passion,

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we would now be hearing the Good Friday sermon,

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which would last about an hour. Richard, after that

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highly wrought drama, what would there have been

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left to say?! Well, it is a very brave cleric who

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would stand up and interrupted the St John Passion to preach a sermon.

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But the death of Jesus on the cross is absolutely central to the version

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of theology that Bach as a Lutheran would be familiar with. Indeed in

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churches now on Good Friday, it is very much the custom to dwell, and

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particularly focus in, on that thing. My own view more and more is

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that actually the liturgy does the job for you. I don't think I could

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have been more moved by anything in preacher said that I have been

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tonight by Bach. The story that you have heard 1000 times, yet it still

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moves you, affects you and changes you.

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In 1724, the people of Leipzig would have been eagerly

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anticipating what their new, 39-year-old resident composer had

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come up with for the occasion for his first Good Friday

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In fact, the operatic qualities in St John Passion may have raised more

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than a few eyebrows, especially among Bach's employers. His contract

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required him to arrange music that is not too long, not to operatic in

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style, but still installs a fear of God in the listener. He still

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overstepped the mark there! Bach masters the large forces of organ,

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orchestral musicians and choir and vocalists. But Bach could apply his

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colour palette as brilliantly Tisolo works as the these showcase pieces.

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To see what his genius could do with just a solo violin, let's take a

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look at Alina Ibragimova playing at the Proms in 2015.

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Stunning, Alina Ibragimova at the Proms two years ago playing

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Partita No Two in D minor for solo violin.

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Isn't it incredible how Bach's writing for a single instrument,

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and a great performance, can captivate 6000 people

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Just ahead of Part two of The St Johns Passion a chance

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to look ahead to more Bach coming up this season.

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On 7th September the great Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff will take

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on a monumental work from Bach's solo repertoire, Book one

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To whet your appetite here he is at the Proms in 2015

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playing another of Bach's great masterpieces for solo piano-

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Andras Schiff, who's back at the Proms on the 7th of September.

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You'll be able to see it here on BBC Four.

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Back to the second part of tonight's performance now.

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We get underway with one of Bach's short organ preludes and then

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we are back into the world of the St John Passion.

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Part two dives headlong back into the action.

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Jesus, abandoned by his friends, the disciples, is led

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Listen to the sheer force of the chorus when they come in,

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cast as the baying mob calling for Jesus' death, it's

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music composed to make you shiver with fear.

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We then follow Jesus to his crucifixion and death,

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and the story of his entombment is relayed by the Evangelist.

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In the final chorus and chorale, we glimpse the joy of Christ's

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The Dunedin Consort making an impression in their proms debut.

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Matthew Brook as Jesus. Soprano, Sofi Bevan.

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Raising the roof of The Royal Albert Hall this evening. John Butt back on

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stage. The congregational singing,

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and in fact all of this evening's concert, beautifully evoking

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the feeling of the Good Friday service in Leipzig when Bach

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premiered the St John Passion The Proms are back on BBC4 next

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Friday, with Jules Buckley and The Metropole Orchestra's

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tribute to legendary composer, innovator,

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and bass virtuoso Charles Mingus. But for now, from all of us here

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at the Royal Albert Hall, goodnight.

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In one of a series of Proms performances marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, John Butt directs his Dunedin Consort in a complete performance of Bach's powerful St John Passion, with Nicolas Mulroy as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Jesus. Reflecting the church setting for which it was written, the performance includes congregational singing from the Proms audience.


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