A Splendid Easter Celebration at The Wigmore Hall

02/04/2013

 Bach, Biber: Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of the English Concert, Lawrence Cummings (director). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.3.2013 (CC)

Bach Cantata: Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4
Biber Missa Christi resurgentis (with interspersed Sonatas by
Pavel Vejvanovsky c1633-1693)

This sterling concert was part of the Wigmore Hall’s Easter celebrations, entitled “Holy Week and Easter Concerts”. It is difficult to imagine a finer way to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and, if like myself, you are not of Christian stock, to wallow in great music.

Bach’s cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden dates from 1707 when Bach was based at Mühlhausen; later, at St Thomas’, Leipzig, Bach revised the work, adding to the instrumentation – the original version does not survive, unfortunately. The work is based on the Lutheran hymn of its title, which is itself derived from plainsong. The Sinfonia introduced us to the English Concert’s gorgeously expressive sound, a reminder of just what miracles period instrument performance can achieve when the players are at the top of their game. Cummings directed, standing, from the keyboard. The lines of the opening Chorus, including the Cantus Firmus, were expertly realised by the chorus; later, it was the chorus’ realisation of the suspensions on the final “Hallelujah!” of Versus IV that, once more, impressed. Professionalism of this kind from a choir is rarely encountered.

Soloists were taken from the body of the English Concert’s choir. Versus II, “Der Tod niemand zwingen kannt”, was performed by soprano and alto soloists, the pure voice of soprano Rebecca Outram twinned with the plangent alto of Timothy Travers Brown. The single voice per line seemed to emphasise the fragility of the human plight: the first line translates as “No-one can defy death”. It was actually the higher voices among the soloists that impressed the most, by far. Tenor Matthew Sandy was rather bleaty in Versus III, “Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn”; that was a shame but was quickly overshadowed by the unforgettable stasis Cummings evoked on the word “Todgestalt” (“Death’s form”). Alas, Sandy was similarly insubstantial in Versus VI, the soprano/tenor duet “So feiern wir das hohe Fest” (”So we celebrate the high feast”). The bass, Robert Rice, was also a little disappointing, rather quiet in his solo, Versus V, “Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm” (”Here is the true Easter lamb”), something which lessened the effect – Affekt, really – of the huge leap at the words “Dem Tode für”. Neither was he assertive in the ensuing “Der Würger kann uns nicht lehr schaden” (”The killer can no longer harm us”).

It was the chorus that has the final word, of course, with a chorale, “Wir essen und leben wohl” (“We eat and live well”). It was difficult to imagine a finer close. Warm and reassuring, surely this was the epitome of the Easter message.

The English Concert has made a notable recording of Biber’s Missa Christi Resurgentis for Harmonia Mundi under Andrew Manze (review). It is a terrific recording, and this performance was right up there with it. Whereas the Harmonia Mundi recording intersperses sonatas by Biber himself between movements, this performance included sonatas by the Moravian trumpet virtuoso and composer Pavel Vejvanovsky. Historically, the link is that Veyvanovsky was employed by the Prince-Bishop of Olomouc at Castle Kroměříž, an employer from whose service Biber was to abscond. Musically, the link is that Biber’s writing foregrounds the trumpets, so using trumpet-dominated sonatas makes sense. As indeed it made aural sense. Cummings sang the first lines of the movements before the start of the movements proper.

Although in the shadow of Bach, it is clear that Biber is not of the same rank; nonetheless this remains a fascinating piece of music. There was superb trumpet playing within the Gloria, a movement marked by its jauntiness rather than its grandeur, particularly around the words “Benedicamus te”. The choir excelled in the extensive, reflective Credo, with the instrumental lower strings providing Bach-like continuously moving counterpoint. The insertion of the pleasant, stately dance of Vejvanovsky’s Sonata XXVI à 5 between Credo and Sanctus was perfectly judged, lending maximal impact to the florid writing that opens the Sanctus. The poignant Agnus Dei was the perfect way to end the evening. This is a remarkably effective work, a piece of devotion in sound rendered pretty much as well as one could wish to hear it. A triumph for all concerned.

Colin Clarke

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