Hearing this English Concert Live was Well Worth the Opportunity

02/12/2017

Blow, Purcell, Handel, Bach – Welcome to all the pleasures: The Choir of New College, Oxford; The English Concert/Robert Quinney (director/harpsichord/organ) Wigmore Hall, London, 29.11.2017. (CC)

Blow – Chaconne in G. O sing unto the Lord (1701)
Purcell – Chacony in G minor, Z 730. Welcome to all the pleasures, Z339
Handel – Organ Concerto in F minor, Op. 4/4 (HWV292)
Bach – Motet, Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV229; Cantata, Du Friedfürst, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV116 (1724)

Previous English Concert events have been on an impeccably high standard. If this was not quite of that level, this was nevertheless an interesting, stimulating programme.

And nowhere more stimulating, perhaps, than in the harmonic explorations of John Blow’s Chaconne, a chaconne that even includes an imitation of a rustic hunt. Jaunty articulation met lachrymose, falling gestures, in what Quinney in one of his several prepared speeches during the course of the evening referred to as an ‘interesting span of style’.

Fascinating to hear Blow’s ‘symphony anthem’ O sing unto the Lord, written for a charitable concert on January 31, 1701 at Stationers’ Hall. The floridly contrapuntal opening chorus led to a decided full stop before the Verse, ‘Declare his honour unto the heather’ showcased alto Alexander Turner, Will Rowland, tenor and Daniel Tate, bass, a nicely balanced trio of voices. Interesting how Blow works with a sort of restrained, chamber glorification of his deity; also there are hints of a grandeur that Handel might achieve in the alto verse, ‘Ascribe unto the Lord’ (Turner really rather quiet when heard from the very back of the hall and not always absolutely in tune). Best of the soloists was the focused bass of Daniel Tate, his Verse ‘For he cometh to judge the earth’ a real highlight. The impression was rather of a piece that is somewhat diffuse and overlong, though.

Onto another level of compositional prowess for Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, Z730, one of his most powerful utterances. Heard here for strings and harpsichord, this was a bright yet stately account, blossoming out beautifully. Complex but not for complexity’s sake, the work is a little miracle and provided arguably the highlight of the evening. Little doubt that Blow suffered in comparison. Purcell’s own sense of harmonic richness saturates the opening to his Welcome to all the pleasures before the sprightly allegro bursts forth, full of life. Both aspects were well caught by the English Concert. Daniel Gethin was a firmer alto soloist in this piece. Choral contributions were perfectly fine if not radiant; a good if not excellent account.

Post-interval, a Handel Organ Concerto, first heard back in March 1735 as an insert into a performance of Athalia at Covent Garden. With the chamber forces in use here, the vim and verve of its opening allegro was irresistible. Some nice flourishes from Robert Quinney, too, although when it came to the discipline of timed, rapid activity he could be wayward and even laboured rhythmically, something most obvious in the flanking movements. The organ sound was most attractive, an English single manual keyboard, so that the Andante held great beauty.

A nice idea to have the concerto before two Bach pieces, though. Firstly, the motet Komm, Jesu, komm, a wonderful piece with the most delicious chorale section sadly beset by tuning problems from the choir. Finally, a cantata, Du Friedfürst, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV116 dating from 1724. A short piece of around a quarter of an hour, it comes from Bach’s second cycle of cantatas and is aimed at the 25th Sunday after Trinity. While the opening and closing movements are rock-solid in their confidence and belief, the intervening story is of the tribulations of those sinners awaiting judgement. The alto aria ‘Ach, unaussprechlich ist die Not’ has a delicious obbligato for oboe d’amore: Daniel Gethin was the excellent alto. The Cantata holds a moment of pure magic, the trio ‘Ach, wir bekennen unsre Schuld,’ here with a superb cello contribution from Sarah McMahon.

A rather surprisingly mixed concert, therefore; well worth it for the opportunity to hear this repertoire live, though.

Colin Clarke

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