Eliot Gardiner Conducts Bach’s Ascension Overtures at St Giles’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner (conductor) St Giles’ Cripplegate, London 10.05.12 (GD)

Lenneke Ruiten, soprano
Meg Bragle, mezzo
Andrew Tortise, tenor
Dietrich Henschel, bass

Cantata: Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein BWV 128
Cantata: Gott fahret auf mit Jauchzen  BWV 43
Cantata: Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen BWV 11

Eliot Gardiner gave a double programme of Ascension Cantatas. The first group of three only differed from the second group by the substitution in the middle cantata of BWV 37. This was probably for editing purposes as the two sets of cantatas were being recorded as part of Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Pilgrimage, in which the complete Bach Cantatas are being recorded in churches/cathedrals in and out of Europe.

I attended the latter programme. BWV 128 was first performed by Bach in Leipzig, May 1725 and It focuses on the eternal implications of Jesus’s Ascension for the baptized believer. The instrumentation is vivid and dramatic, with horns denoting the ascent, a trumpet to reflect images of the parousia and an oboe d’amore capturing the mystery of the wisdom of God. The jubilant opening chorus celebrating the Ascension set the tone for the whole programme, with Eliot Gardiner’s notorious clarity of texture and superb blending of choral and instrumental textures. Of particular note was the duet for alto and tenor with oboe d’amore obbligato telling of mortal man’s silence at the magisterial mystery of God. Tenor Andrew Tortise and mezzo Meg Bragle sang this duet in perfect harmony with each other.

BWV  43, composed in May 1726, opened with prominent trumpets and timpani (period instruments of course), and the choir proclaiming the jubilant tones and ‘bright trumpets’ accompanying Christ’s Ascension to heaven in verses taken from Psalm 47.  Bass Dietrich Henschel was in fine form here in his recitative and aria with obbligato trumpet telling of Christ’s allegorical victory over  Satan, and thereby the promise of eternal salvation.

The final chorales in BWV 128 and 43 which telling respectively of Christ’s entry into heaven at the head of the saints, and the faithful’s belief that man will be judged mercifully, were sung in the beautifully simple way that was intended – the Christian message without any slowing down or special emphasis. All the soloists were in good form. Soprano Lenneke Ruiten gave a beautiful rendition of her aria with two oboes and strings, which tells of the completion of Christ’s  work of salvation and his return to the Father. I noticed a slight strain in her top register, but this was more than compensated for by eloquent vocal phrasing. All the solo obbligato parts were brilliantly played and phrased. Neil Brough’s trumpet contributions combined brilliance and an understanding of the text, in terms of tonal contrast. His period trumpet had a wide range from triumphant statements and baroque opulence to a more intimate vocal quality. The same can be said for the other instrumental soloists, especially the oboes and horns.

BWV  11 ‘Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen’, first performed in 1735,  has long been a particular favourite of Eliot Gardiner, although now, twelve years into his Bach Pilgrimage, he must have multiple favourites! I remember hearing him give a typically jubilant rendition of it back in the early nineties at a Prom Concert. This is a somewhat extended cantata and is sometimes called the ‘Ascension Oratorio’, although, as far as I know, there is no mention of this by Bach himself. Like the cantata ‘Christen, ätzet diesen Tag’ BWV 63, written earlier in Weimar, BWV 11 begins and ends with a resplendent and grand chorus in D major. The tone of ‘Festmusik’ is most evident in the two choruses. Here Bach used identical orchestration to that of parts 1,III and IV of the ‘Christmas Oratorio,  including three trumpets and kettledrums. It is concertante in style, but structurally different from the second/last chorus which has a dance-like tone and is an elaboration over a ‘cantus firmus’ propounded verse by verse with very brief instrumental interludes framed by a prelude and a postlude. The first chorus is an exaltation of God in his glory in heaven with assembled choirs. The last chorus tells of the joy evoked by the anticipation the appearance of Christ. Mezzo Meg Bragle gave a suitably sustained, but well contoured rendition of th first aria, which tells of the sorrow caused by the parting of Christ. The music of the first aria will be found in abbreviated form in the ‘Angus Dei of the Mass in B minor. Soprano Lanneke Ruiten sang a beautifully phrased rendition of the second aria which tells of the the joy to come standing before the Saviour in heaven. This aria has the peculiarity of  being  accompanied by three instrumental parts played by a pair of transverse flutes, the first oboe, and the violins and violas in unison functioning as a support, the aria being devoid of a continuo part. All this was meticulously directed by Eliot Gardiner with his famed attention to instrumental and vocal detail. Gardiner’s Bach is rhythmically charged full of sharp accents, and tempi on the fast side but never rushed These qualities applied especially to the two choruses of BWV 11. But in the first aria for mezzo, used in the B minor Mass, Eliot Gardiner directed in a beautifully restrained and flowing manner. Although Bach specifies  an alto (Altus), or counter-tenor, for the alto parts I was not too disappointed that Eliot Gardiner chose a mezzo, Meg Bragle, who sang excellently, but the use of say a good counter-tenor can also sound very idiomatic.

From were I was sitting near the front of the performing area the church acoustic sounded fine and suited Eliot Gardiner’s crisp clear style. Sometimes a Bach cantata is well served by a more spacious acoustic, but the St Giles’ acoustic allowed a special clarity in the choir, which is sometimes lost in larger venues.  The conductor gave a brief, but highly informative, talk on his Bach Pilgrimage, the wonderfully contrasted venues, and some of the unexpected problems  encountered. He also warmly thanked the 600+ supporters who made tonight’s concerts possible.

As an encore he repeated the resplentent final chorus of BWV 11, which was very apt. Bach, like a few other very great composers (such as Monteverdi, Mozart, Beethoven) knew how to end a work with perfectly timed punctuality.  As Tovey said of Bach codas: “they ‘end’ as punctually as planets complete their orbits…”

Geoff Diggines