A Very Special Prom Marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

04/08/2017

Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 25 – Schütz, Bach: Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.8.2017 (CC)

Schütz –  Nun lob mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43; Danket dem Herren, den er ist freundlich, SWV 23

J.S. BachGott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV79; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV80

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”) of 1517 caused huge changes in the Catholic Church. This Prom was part of a sequence of concerts marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Schütz pieces were probably written for the centenary of the Reformation, in 1617; both of the Bach Cantatas were composed for Reformation Day celebrations in Leipzig.

Only one of the three Schütz pieces has made it to the Proms previously: SWV  43, in 1992, with Paul McCreesh at the helm. David Gutman’s excellent Proms annotations inform us also that no Schütz at all was programmed at the proms until 1966.

So, Nun lob mein Seel, Den Herren received its First Proms performance. Taking a Lutheran chorale tune, the piece, with its naturally unfolding lines, rich lower voices and, in this performance, that rarest of beasts, subtle Baroque trumpets, seemed ablaze with polychoral inspiration. With exemplary diction (it has to be, in the RAH acoustic), SWV 41 danced beautifully, the triple-metre sections given with a great sense of lift. Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen sets Psalm 115, beginning with a solo bass psalm tone recitation of the first line before Schütz embarks on writing for three choirs in another virtuoso demonstration of polychorality. The sackbuts became a vital part of the musical argument. The soprano line, so exquisitely pure in alt, added another layer of beauty while the sprung rhythms of the concluding “Hallelujah” brought a palpable sense of jubilation.

The final offering in the first half was a setting of Psalm 136, Danket dem Herren, den er ist freundlich. The use of organ and harpsichord together worked well, although the harpsichord sound was never going to travel well. In 1617, cannon shots amplified the celebrations in a sort of 1812 Overture pre-echo; sensibly, perhaps, Gardiner decided one can only take authenticity so far … yet the sense of jubilation in giving thanks to the Christian God was undeniable.

The two Bach Cantatas include, of course, Lutheran chorale melodies. Cantata No. 79, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild may have been written for the Reformation Day festival in Leipzig in 1725. Last heard at the Proms in 1969, the cantata includes two screaming horn parts, ably tackled by Anneke Scott and Joseph Walters. The long and vigorous instrumental sinfonia led to a strong chorus on the opening of the Psalm. The alto aria that follows was pure magic, thanks to the beautiful voice of Reginald Mobley complemented by the obbligato oboe of Leo Duarte. Mobley’s voice hit the highest part of its register with glistening brilliance. The musical highlight of this cantata is the complex duet for soprano and bass, “Gott, ach Gott, verlass die Dienen”. Soprano Amy Carson and bass Robert Davies had beautifully complementary voices; Carson’s flawless attack was particularly noteworthy.

It was fascinating to hear the famous Cantata No. 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in the context of a performance just days ago (Sunday, July 31) at the Église de Verteillac, France, directed by Ton Koopman as part of the Intinéraire Baroque 2017 Festival. Both performances were given in huge spaces, although that of Verteillac is even more problematic than that of the RAH (Koopman’s performance closed his festival and was preceded in that concert by Telemann’s Die Donnerode, TWV 6:3). Koopman, however, had the advantage of the superb counter-tenor Maarten Engeltjes among his soloists; musically honours were fairly evenly split between the English Baroque Soloists and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

The superb clarity Gardiner managed to extract from his forces for the opening chorus was most impressive, while his account of the Aria/Chorale “Alles was von Gott geboren” for bass and soprano felt rather restrained in contrast with Koopman. Yet here one must once again celebrate Gardiner’s bass soloist, Robert Davies, who also narrated beautifully in the recitatives. Miriam Allan shone in her aria, “Komm in mein Herzenshaus,” the purity of her upward intervals at “Treib Welt und Satan aus” a joy. More, the obbligato oboe da caccia and solo violin in the alto/tenor duet, “Wie selig sind doch die” (Reginald Mobley now joined by Hugo Hymas) added a florid dimension, superbly handled.

It was wonderful to see such a large audience for a late-night Prom. This was a very special concert.

Colin Clarke

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