King’s Place Starts to Unwrap Bach

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Stephanie Gonley, Martin Burgess (violins), Michael Cox (flute), Steven Devine (harpsichord), Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Hall One, Kings Place, London, 22.2.2013 (MB)

Cantata: Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209
Concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044
Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043
Cantata: Ich habe genug, BWV 82a

Having previously ‘unwrapped’ Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and Brahms, Kings Place has turned in 2013 to the greatest composer of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach. Even for a year-long festival, much of Bach’s voluminous surviving output will remain unperformed, but there is certainly a good deal on offer throughout the year. Here we heard a pair of cantatas and a pair of concertos, those old Bach hands in the Academy of St Martin the Fields joined by soprano, Carolyn Sampson.

Three out of the four works featured a prominent role for flute, hence Michael Cox’s soloist billing. He and Sampson proved nicely matched in the opening Non sa che sia dolore, a rare instance of Bach in Italian, if indeed it is by Bach at all. (It sounds as though it is.) The ASMF’s Sinfonia convincingly plunged us into the musical thick of it, the orchestral contribution being perhaps the finest I have heard in this cantata. Despite the small numbers (strings, there was requisite harmonic depth to the aria, ‘Parti pur e non dolore’, possessed of a fine sense of inevitability. Rhythmic precision did not come at the cost, as so often it does nowadays, of a hard-driven performance; there was nothing unyielding to any of the movements. There was occasionally something a little woolly to Cox’s tone; I wondered whether this were a hat-tip to the Baroque transverse flute. Whatever the truth of it, it did not perturb. Sampson’s tone was bell-like in its clarity without that entailing a lack of femininity; it seemed thoroughly apt for a secular cantata. Vocal and instrumental exuberance were not bought at the cost of the weird exhibitionism that sadly characterises so much present-day Bach performance.

The orchestra was pared down further for the ‘Triple’ Concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord (strings Again, despite the small numbers, i was immediately struck by the harmonic depth of the ASMF’s performance. And what a relief it was to encounter sensible tempi in an age that often lauds as ‘exciting’ breakneck performances that never so much as permit Bach’s music to breathe. Balance between the soloists was well-nigh ideal: not clinically so, just apparently ‘right’. The first movement even had me come close to leaving on one side my dislike of the harpsichord as a solo instrument, so convincing were Steven Devine’s shaping of phrases and projection. Devine, Cox, and Stephanie Gonley all displayed admirable flexibility within a stricter overall framework. In the slow movement, the harpsichord (inevitably?) tended towards the merely ‘tinkling’; I longed for the sustaining power of the piano, but that was hardly the soloist’s fault. Gonley’s violin sounded wonderfully viola-like in its richness of tone. Again, balance was exemplary. Bach’s ‘learned’ counterpoint made its point in the finale, but so did his equally fine melodic genius in a shapely, stylish performance. If the harpsichord solos were at times a little clattering, that again was the fault of the instrument, not the performer.

The ‘Double’ Violin Concerto was the only disappointment of the evening. All three movements, but especially the outer two, were driven far too hard. Bach had no opportunity to breathe. The opening movement sounded as if a modern Vivaldi performance had been transferred to Bach’s music. ‘Calm down!’ one wanted to tell the players. Even the slow movement was harried – and Bach should be no more harried than Mozart. Ultimately, it proved prosaic, charmless even. O for the Oistrakhs…

Ich habe genug was given in its later version for soprano and flute (and should therefore have been marked in the programme as BWV 82a, not 82). The replacement of the original oboe with the flute makes the music less plangent, and a soprano can never hope to project the gravity of a Hotter or a Fischer-Dieskau. Nevertheless, this was a fine performance on its own terms, which certainly brought with it different Passion resonances. Again the depth of orchestral sound, doubtless assisted by the excellent Hall One acoustic, was crucial to the performance’s success. Recitative was supple, and if ‘Schlummert ein’ has been taken more slowly, it certainly did not fall prey to the inappropriate turbo-drive of the Double Concerto. Might not an organ, though, have been a better choice of continuo instrument than the harpsichord? Sampson’s low notes could not have the resonance of, say, John Shirley-Quirk in his great recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the ASMF, but this remained a moving account. The fast tempo of the final aria, ‘Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,’ worked very well, both on its own terms and as a response to the strange Pietist words, a Christian never being at home in this world. Ornamentation was flawless, without loss to Bach’s humanity.

Mark Berry