Fine Singing of Bach by The Sixteen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (conductor), Kings Place, London, 15.5.2013 (GDn)

Motet: Komm, Jesu, komm!, BWV 229
Mass in G, BWV 236
Motet: Furchte dich nicht, BWV 228
Mass in A, BWV 234

Bach’s Motets and smaller Masses are the odd ones out. Unlike his more numerous cantatas and his more famous passions, they do not help the listener to follow their structure through the alternation of arias and chorales. Nor do they fit easily into the forms of Protestant worship that characterise most of Bach’s other religious works. All of which makes programming them tricky. But Harry Christophers has come up with an effective format: a two-part concert in which each half begins with a Motet and is followed by a Mass. The choice of works on this evening’s programme fits the format particularly well, the Motet Komm, Jesu, komm! a bracing opener and the Mass in A, a work with an appropriately monumental conclusion to end. And the differences between these two works and the other Motet, Furchte dich nicht and the other Mass, in G BWV 229, are sufficient to make for a satisfyingly diverse evening of music.

Hall One at Kings Place is a resonant venue but it’s hardly a church, and so a lot of this music can sound re-contextualised simply by the acoustic. The hall affords the music a warmth, but never obscures the detail. In this context, The Sixteen sounds more like a group of soloists – which, of course, it is – than a homogeneous choir. The individual voices always come through, which both aids the counterpoint and instils a sense of humanity in the music, with the musical personality of each singer contributing something to the whole. Christophers fielded eight singers, divided into two choirs in the Motets and singing two to a part in the Masses. Given the calibre of vocal talent on display here, it was little surprise that both the choral singing and the vocal solos were all excellent. Many of the details that the exceptional acoustic allowed us to hear demonstrated just how fine the choral singing was. The top notes from the sopranos – Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle – not a quality that Bach’s music usually shows off, were delicately placed and beautifully controlled in their timbre. Balance between the sections was always good, and diction was admirably clear throughout. The vocal solos in the Masses were also impressive. There were no weak links to speak of among the soloists, but the finest individual performance of the evening was from bass Ben Davies in the Domine Deus of the Mass in A. His voice is commanding without being overpowering. He has a distinctive tone and clear diction, and he is able to project admirably without exceeding the bounds of the Baroque aesthetic. His is definitely a name to look out for.

Is it written in stone that the Orchestra of the Sixteen should be a period instrument band? Would the choir’s eminence in Renaissance repertoire be compromised if they were to be heard with modern instruments in Baroque and Classical music? I only ask because the orchestra this evening was not the equal of the choir. The instrumentalists played well as individuals for the most part, though there were a few ropey solos, but the group didn’t really gel as an ensemble. The wide range of timbres available to period instruments, especially the strings, requires a real unity of intent for the ensemble to cohere. I’d hesitate to call this group a scratch band, but they clearly don’t play together very often. Perhaps, under the circumstances, a modern instrument group would meet the challenges better – in the Masses that is; the continuo group, comprising theorbo, chamber organ, violone and cello, was ideal in the Motets.

Christophers’ readings of these works balanced smooth legato flow with just enough accentuation to give the music shape. His tempi are generally fast, but never rigid, and the vocal phrases are always elegantly shaped. Christophers has a rare ability to make Bach’s music sound intuitive, and always more emotional than intellectual. The way he handles final cadences is particularly effective, slowing down at just the right moment in the cadential preparation so that the final chords seem at one with the preceding music, yet unquestionably conclusive.

These were performances to a high standard, and as such they invite comparison with the very best. Christophers’ approach to the Motets resembles Gardiner’s, but Gardiner has the upper hand in terms of the elegance, grace and precision of his (larger?) choir. On the other hand, Christophers seeks a more monumental sound with this music, more reverential and more flowing. The problems of intonation and ensemble in Christophers’ orchestra, although minor, are the difference between this and the superior orchestral accompaniments on Masaaki Suzuki’s recordings. But, then, it’s always unfair to compare a live performance with a commercial recording. Leaflets in the foyer on the way out invited contributions towards a new commercial recording of this repertoire. One incentive to donate is that we will then be able to compare like with like. There is certainly a huge amount of musical potential in these readings, and Christophers has some original ideas that could make their recordings genuinely distinctive. If the orchestra gets the chance to sort out the problems with their ensemble between now and then, these could prove to be very fine recordings indeed.

Gavin Dixon