United Kingdom Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Julia Doyle (soprano), Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano), Stephanie Gonly (violin), John Mills (violin), Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, English Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London,5.12.2014 (RB)
Handel: Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
Zadok the Priest
Selection from The Water Music suites, HWV 348
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 BWV 1048
Handel: The King Shall Rejoice
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043
Vivaldi: Gloria in D Major RV 589
The English Chamber Orchestra joined forces with the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge for this concert to give us a selection of Baroque favourites in the run-up to the festive season. The programme notes referred to the St John’s Choir as “one of the finest men and boy’s choirs in the world” but there were also a number of young women singing in the choir.
The ECO sprang instantaneously into life with Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. The strings gave us bright clean textures while there was some nice shaping of the line in the oboes. The Choir of St John’s joined them for Zadok the Priest – the most famous of Handel’s Coronation Anthems. It took a while for them to become completely comfortable with the Festival Hall acoustic and I was looking for a little more vocal projection in the opening section, particularly from the sopranos and altos. However, they subsequently produced crisply articulated and flowing contrapuntal lines while the ECO’s trumpets conveyed brilliantly the pageantry and majesty of the piece.
The ECO then treated us to a selection of dances from Handel’s Water Music suites. Andrew Nethsingha characterised each of the dances nicely and the ECO played with an impressive degree of clarity and attention to detail. The strings gave us perfectly sculpted phrases in the famous Air while the Hornpipe had the necessary regal resplendence and the final Allegro was fresh and invigorating. I wondered if Nethsingha and the ECO might have done a little more to bring out the contrasts between the dances both in terms of dynamics and orchestral colour.
The penultimate work in the first half was Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto which the ECO’s strings played without a conductor and with violins and violas standing. They did a great job with the lively contrapuntal exchanges and captured beautifully the very subtle emotion emerging from the interweaving textures. Chris Bevan gave us some nice extemporisation on the harpsichord before the strings took off again in the final movement which was played with enormous energy and vitality. The first half concluded with another of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, The King Shall Rejoice. The ECO’s brass captured the ornate splendour of the opening while the Choir of St John’s gave us an uplifting and technically accomplished performance of this most glorious of anthems.
The second half opened with Bach’s D Minor Concerto for Two Violins, which was again played without a conductor. Stephanie Gonly (leader of the ECO) and John Mills (leader of the Tippett Quartet and an ECO principal) led the two respective sections of the orchestra. Both of them played with great flair and they seemed to relish the interweaving of the lines and inventiveness of the dialogue. The slow movement was played with great lyricism and tenderness and the weaving of the lines was expertly done but it did not quite soar to the heights of the sublime in the way that this music can do. In the final movement I thought Gonly and Mills could have made a little more of some of Bach’s crunchy harmonies but they nevertheless played with enormous style and energy.
Julia Doyle and Daniella Lehner joined the choir and orchestra for Vivaldi’s Gloria. Nethsingha’s choice of tempi seemed spot on to me and I loved the rhythmic buoyancy of the opening movement. The St John’s Choir was absolutely terrific in the meditative second movement but their efforts were spoiled by someone in the audience who had a coughing fit. Julia Doyle has a light soprano voice and she created a very pure sound that was just right for this music. She excelled in the ‘Domine Deus’ and was ably supported by the ECO’s principal oboe. Daniella Lehner gave us a nice range of tone colour in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ but I felt the sound and vocal projection could have been a little more focused. In the final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ the choir and orchestra once again joined forces in an upbeat and life affirming conclusion.
Overall, this was much fine singing and playing in this concert and it was good to hear all these jewels of the Baroque era once again.