Many Delights as Bach is Unwrapped at Kings Place

Bach: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Christopher Cowie (oboe), Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Tomo Keller (violin/director). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 15.6.2013 (MB)

Cantata: ‘Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten,’ BWV 202
Concerto for oboe and violin, BWV 1060R
Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Cantata: ‘O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit,’ BWV 210

A string section of the size is small by reasonable standards, though doubtless counts as positively – or rather negatively – Furtwänglerian by the mullahs of ‘authenticity’. Nevertheless, there was no sense that the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was undernourished, and in any case its ‘orchestral’ contribution was intermittent. Carolyn Sampson and obbligato oboist Christopher Cowie took the first movement of the wedding cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, as equal ‘soloists’ in something that fell midway between an instrumental concerto and a vocal duet. That aria emerged clear and clean, but not without warmth. Sampson’s tone remains somewhat ‘English’ in quality; provided one does not mind that, there is much to enjoy, even though a touch more vibrato would not have gone amiss. Breath control and phrasing were exemplary from both ‘soloists’. The arioso-like quality of some of the recitative writing was well handled by Sampson. There was a nimble rendition of the cello part to the second aria, though intonation was not always beyond reproach. In the third aria, ‘Wenn die Frühlingslüfte streichen,’ Sampson was fluently complemented by violinist, Tomo Keller. This cantata may not represent Bach at his most profound, but nevertheless there is considerable pleasure to be had in his effortless mastery of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Instrumentalists such as the cellist in the final recitative took their opportunities for word-painting. Despite the small forces, there was a welcome courtly sturdiness to the closing gavotte-aria, in which the full orchestra returns.

The concerto for oboe and violin opened well, its first movement harmonically grounded, and with a well-chosen tempo that permitted the music to speak. There was splendid give and take between the soloists, Cowie and Keller. Above all, Bach’s score was played as music; the issue of the score’s reconstruction melted away, or rather simply did not arise. The slow movement was on the swift side for an Adagio, though it generally worked. There were, however, occasions on which one wished the performance would prove more yielding, more in the case of the violin than the oboe. There was exemplary pizzicato support from the ASMF. The finale would have benefited from a slightly more moderate tempo, Keller’s performance veering uncomfortably close to the world of Vivaldi. Bach does not need to sound aggressive.

It was a relief, then, after the interval, to have the A minor violin concerto performed in less harried fashion. Again, the tempo for the first movement was well chosen; it certainly was not slow, but nor was it relentless. Phrases were nicely turned. Dynamic contrasts and gradations made musical sense throughout. The slow movement was arguably a little brisk, somewhat no-nonsense in the orchestral approach. There were, however, moments when it yielded. Moreover, there was none of the non vibrato nonsense one fears in present-day Bach performance; the violin was permitted to sing throughout. Playing was clean, strong, and sweet-toned in the finale, which benefited from a well-judged tempo. It excited through musical means rather than through exhibitionism, which has no place whatsoever in Bach.

The relative neglect of the wedding cantata, O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit, is puzzling; to my eyes and ears, it is a superior work to Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, though I should not wish to be without either. Cowie returned to the orchestra, this time on oboe d’amore, and was joined by another instrumentalist, flautist Paul Edmund-Davies. The first aria (though second movement), ‘Spielet, ihr beseelten Lieder’, was elegantly despatched; no mean feat given the trickiness of Bach’s vocal writing. It may be a cliché to describe it as instrumental in quality, but that description certainly fits the bill here. Sampson’s coloratura was excellent. Moreover, her handling of recitative proved admirably supple throughout. The aria, ‘Ruhet hie, matte Töne,’ with three ‘soloists’, voice, violin, and oboe d’amore, proved a veritable garden of musical delights, with excellent balance between the soloists, and between them and the continuo. The partnership between Sampson and Edmund-Davies in ‘Schweigt, ihr Flöten,’ was just as impressive. The ultimate recitative, ‘Hochteurer Mann,’ benefited from an instrumental richness – strings and those ‘solo’ instruments – that almost approached the arioso writing of the Passions, after which the final aria, ‘Seid beglückt, edle beide,’ proved a glorious wedding gift indeed. Infectiously joyous, a radiant and musicianly conclusion from all concerned; we might almost have been in an Orchestral Suite, with added soprano.

Mark Berry