Bach and Handel Swansea Bach Choir & Sinfonia Britannica at St. Mary’s Swansea

Bach, Handel: Swansea Bach Choir / John Hugh Thomas (conductor), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Gill Ross (soprano), Amy Carson (soprano),  James Neville (countertenor), Sinfonia Britannica of London (leader: Daniel Edgar), Alastair Ross (chamber organ), St Mary’s, Swansea 9.4.2011 (NHR)

Bach, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

Bach, Ich habe genug, BWV 82

Handel, Dixit Dominus

This was the Swansea Bach Choir’s 45th anniversary concert, and the penultimate to be conducted by the choir’s founder and director, John Hugh Thomas. Formed in 1965 under the aegis of the then Extramural Department of the University College of Swansea, the choir has been ever since one of the principal ornaments of musical life in the region, and a major ambassador for the city, having performed in venues and festivals all over the world. John Hugh Thomas, himself a former member of the Monteverdi Choir and the founder in 1984 of the National Youth Choir of Wales, will be a hard act to follow, having established an impeccable tradition of warm, disciplined singing, and having given so much encouragement to singers of all ages, many of whom have gone on to luminous careers. The Swansea Bach Choir has also always been notable for its imaginative repertoire, having made pioneering recordings of works by twentieth-century composers such as Frank Martin and Pizetti, together with Swedish composers previously unknown in Britain.

For this celebration concert, however, they returned to their familiar ground, Bach and Handel. Christ lag in Todesbanden is now believed to be a very early cantata, probably composed in 1707, but already displaying a grandeur and sweep of conception way beyond Bach’s early models. It’s an ensemble work with no solo voices, a sequence of variations on the chorale tune, and the choir brought out the contrasts of colour and mood to good effect, especially the sections for female voices alone, and bass voices alone, both finely sustained and excellently supported by the small string orchestra.

The text of Ich habe genug is a free variation on the Nunc dimittis, the aged Simeon’s song of thanksgiving for having been allowed to see the infant Jesus, and thus having nothing further to detain him in this world. It’s one of Bach’s best known solo cantatas, but best known, of course, in the familiar version for bass with oboe obbligato. Here it was sung by the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas with flute accompaniment by Katy Bircher. I hadn’t heard it in this form before; it was beautifully sung and played, and it was curious to sense how the new register was taking the mood of the piece in a new direction. I did rather miss the oboe: in the first section of the cantata, the oboe arabesques add a note not just of extra plangency but of an almost luxuriant languourousness, as if earthly pleasures were being remembered and incorporated in the moment of fulfilment that also transcends them. Flute and soprano together tended rather chastely to purify this out, as arguably of course they should, but there’s loss as well as gain. The central aria ‘Schlummert ein’ now took on a wonderful quality of tenderness, like a cradle song, projected outwards and stressing the continuity of life, whereas in its usual bass rendering there is perhaps a greater weight and gravity to the singer’s final, farewell address to his own body. I was left wondering how differently other cantatas might sound so transposed, while admiring the radiant singing here.

Handel’s Dixit dominus is an old standby of the choir, and was performed with great vigour and enthusiasm. It was also composed in 1707, by which time the 22-year-old Handel had already taken all he needed from Italian music of the day and overmastered it. There’s an extraordinary bounce and swagger to this piece, especially in the final Gloria which just keeps going, wave after wave – world without end, indeed. A word, too, for the penultimate section where two sopranos whirl above low sustained male voices, in a manner that seems to anticipate much of the future course of Italian opera. The standard of singing and playing never dipped.

Neil Reeve