United Kingdom Bach, Christmas Oratorio: Ludus Baroque, Richard Neville-Towle (conductor), Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, 12.12.2015. (SRT)
Ludus Baroque is an occasional group that comes together only a couple of times a year: once in August for Bach’s B Minor Mass, and once in December for the Christmas Oratorio. I suspect that the personnel is never the same for two performances, and many of the players and singers are either still in education or are pretty freshly out of music college. If that suggests amateurism then that’s far from the truth. They are, in fact, a remarkably polished set of musicians, especially so when you consider how little time they’ve ever spent in the same room together. Playing on baroque instruments, the orchestra are darned impressive for such a clubbed-together band. Led by Oliver Webber, the gut strings are urgent and full of life, not at all wiry, and the wind sound is excellent, with a very impressive transverse flute from Rachel Helliwell. The horns sounded absolutely splendid in Part Four, and special mention should go to Peter Mankarious, who commanded the tricky heights of the natural trumpet with astounding skill.
They’re conducted by Richard Neville-Towle, the Director of Music at Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, and his many years of experience with them has shaped them into what amounts to a site-specific ensemble of musicians. The orchestra and chorus are on the small side, but they’re perfectly suited to this acoustic; almost tailor-made for this space. He and chorus director Will Dawes must surely act as the glue that draws these musicians together in such a way and, in many ways, the quality of this performance is a good example of collectivity at work: people who are drawn together through a common relationship and the love of the piece to put on something of the highest possible quality. It’s quite inspiring, really.
The vocal soloists were all drawn from the chorus and, as a gesture to the collective enterprise, aren’t individually named in the programme. Jessica Leary sang Flösst, mein Heiland with great beauty, and Rachel Redmond was, if anything, even more impressive with a bright, pearly top that must make for great coloratura. Grace Durham put her lovely low alto to good use in Schlafe meine Liebster, and Rory McCleery, the only countertenor on the billing, brought very distinctive colour to Bereite dich, Zion, as well as the great trio. Two men stood out, though. Gwilym Bowen’s Evangelist was of a remarkably high standard, showing not only beautiful tone but also a remarkable gift for communicating the power of the words, making every nuance of every syllable count. Most impressive of all was the young-sounding, vigorous baritone of Jon Stainsby. His is a voice of real class and distinction, with a real sit-up-and-take-notice quality, and flexible technical proficiency too.
Ludus Baroque will be back pnm 17th August 2016 for the B Minor Mass.