Bach Concert “Unwraps” Links between Concertos and Cantatas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Anna Dennis (soprano), Stuart Jackson (tenor), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), George Humphreys (bass), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / John Butt (director/harpsichord), Kings Place, London, 22.3.2013 (GD)

Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major, BWV 1049
Cantata ‘Komm, du susse Todesstunde’, BWV 161
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major BWV 1050
Cantata ‘Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’ BWV 9

I am not sure of the specific meaning or implication of the term ‘wrapped’ here. Today Bach’s music is more generally available/accessible to more people than at any other time, from events like this one to the growing number of ‘complete’ recorded Bach editions, especially those at bargain prices. Initially I equated the ‘unwrapped’ with the unwrapping of one of these huge CD box sets. But as one reads the copious literature accompanying this year long Bach event it becomes apparent that it was planned most imaginatively. Not only does it include a generous and diverse selection of Bach’s monumental oeuvre, it also provides a way of appreciating Bach’s overall context and huge influence not just on ‘classical’ music and the many different and changing performative styles, but also on jazz, popular music, film, and the mass media in general. All this is included in a series of talks, seminars and ‘study days’.

Like most of the programmes in this Bach event, this concert was notable for the way in which each work has interlinking features with the other works. So, for instance, tonight’s concert was notable in the way in which various instrumental groups in the Brandenburg Concertos cross over with those deployed in the two cantatas. For example, the use of two recorders, which make the textures of the fourth Brandenburg concerto resonant, also occurs in the cantata BWV 161. Director John Butt, who directed from the harpsichord deployed eight players, all members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In the Brandenburg No.4 he achieved a welcome fluidity and clarity greatly helped by the open acoustic of the hall – such a welcome contrast to the relatively dry and restricted acoustic of the Barbican hall. In this concerto, which Bach later transcribed for the harpsichord (BWV 1057), the concertante style was well realised, with Bach alternating between violin obbligato and two recorders, making for quite subtle and at times startling contrasts. As in most ‘period’ style performing practices tempi tended to be on the swift side, but nothing seemed rushed. Andante movements, as in this concerto, were only a shade slower than the outer allegro and presto movements. Predictably there was little sign of vibrato, which is not really suited to the Baroque style. Also it was possible, with an ensemble of this modest size, to hear each instrumental part clearly and also the way in which the ensemble violins interacted with the obbligato soloists.

The cantata BWV 161, which translates as ‘Come, thou sweet death’s door’, was probably first performed at Weimar in September 1716 (the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity). The text comes from the lesson of the corresponding Sunday of the story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, and has the tone of funeral music, the two recorders intoning the sound of funeral bells. But although the tone is reflective, there is also a tone of gentle consolation to do with the hope of salvation in the next life. This is reflected in the opening C major aria for counter-tenor which tells of the anticipation of death as a sweet departure, the spirit being uplifted through the symbolic taste of honey anticipating the kiss of the saviour. Tim Mead sang this well, although I did notice signs of strain in the upper registers perhaps indicating that this deeply symbolic and reflective music needs a more flowing and more gently lyrical tone. I had a similar impression with Stuart Jackson’s flowing A major tenor aria which expresses the feeling of contempt for the shallow pleasures of this world and the longing for the true bliss of heaven. Jackson sang his recitative with great feeling but in the aria itself I felt a certain stridency, which may have to do with his vocal expressive zeal. Vocal restraint (which does not exclude the power of vocal expression) is always more apt for Bach. Tim Mead inflected the following powerful recitative with the necessary fervour, all balanced well with the tutti instrumental accompaniment. Here the tone of the anticipation of death and salvation extends in the penultimate C major chorus, and the final chorale in A minor which uses the same chorale theme found in the St Matthew Passion. Here all four soloists were perfectly balanced with the orchestral and continuo parts (which included a chamber organ). There have been, and still are, endless debates and conjectures about the size of the choir and instrumental components Bach would have used and expected. Of course there is no final answer to these speculations, but there is some evidence that Bach, particularly in the solo cantatas, would have deployed a similar ensemble with one voice for each part in the chorales and choruses. It certainly worked well tonight.

As with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, John Butt directed a stylish and swiftly direct rendition of the Brandenburg No. 5. As with No. 4, there was a welcome attention to clarity of instrumental texture, with a near perfect balance between the main ensemble and the flute and violin obbligato. This concerto is really a fully-fledged harpsichord concerto. Mostly John Butt played the extended harpsichord part stylishly without ever bringing attention to his playing outside of the work’s overall ensemble unity. The greatly extended cadenza Bach composed for the first movement ( a veritable solo marked ‘senza stromenti’) was well proportioned and contoured. I was however quite surprised at how uncoordinated some of Butt’s playing was here. At one point of elaborate counterpoint he reached a kind performative ‘cul de sac’ which he only just managed to avert. I later played the same cadenza in the old Klemperer recording with George Malcolm, and although Klemperer’s performative style here is definitely ‘politically incorrect’ in ‘period’ practice terms, Malcolm’s playing of the cadenza is a model of clarity, restraint, balance and structural perception. The ‘Affetuoso’ in B minor with its prominent continuo part ( a ‘sonata for four voices with continuo’, as one commentator put it), and the splendid final fugal gigue, were played with great clarity and stylish conviction.

BWV 9 is a choral cantata and translates as ‘Salvation has come to us through goodness and grace’. It was composed in Leipzig (1732/35) for the sixth Sunday after Trinity and its message comes from from Matthew 5: 20-26 in which Jesus warns against the self-righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees. The opening chorus subtended by a typical Bachian chorale has the added instrumental colour of flute and oboe d’amour, a tonal colouration beautifully balanced with the ensemble and choir tonight. As with BWV 161 the choral parts were performed by the four soloists placed in front of the instrumental ensemble. Again the balance and transparency of instrumental and choral textures was impressive. But as the likes of John Eliot Gardiner and Ton Koopman have demonstrated equal clarity can be obtained with a small choir of around twelve to twenty strong. In this cantata all the recitatives are sung by the bass as a kind of sermon, the arias projecting a mood of contemplation. Bass George Humphries projected these recitatives with a vocal confidence which never became strident or over rhetorical. Tenor Stephen Jackson, in his aria warning against sin and the plunge into the abyss, came into his own with none of the over dramatization he displayed in BWV 161. The last aria, a duet for soprano and counter-tenor, which tells of the spiritual strength gained through the contemplation of God’s love and good works, was quite well sung but I wasn’t always convinced by the vocal contour of the aria. not so much through any particular vocal defect, but more because of a lack dialogue or harmony between Anna Dennis’s soprano and the counter-tenor of Tim Mead. The final simple four-part chorale, with freely moving lower voices, was delivered in a suitably direct and straightforward manner.

Geoff Diggines