To the Wigmore Hall, again, on Wednesday to see the Retrospect Ensemble, again, but this time in Bach. The programme consisted of two cantatas for alto solo with Robin Blaze, plus orchestral movements from other cantatas. Given that Bach only wrote 3 cantatas for alto solo alone, it was a shame that we could not hear all three.
The ensemble consisted of 5 strings, 3 oboists (playing a variety of oboi) and bassoon. The continuo was played on a large chamber organ by director Matthew Halls. A big feature of the alto cantatas and the other instrumental movements played was that they featured a major organ part rather than just continuo. Matthew Halls, in his spoken introduction in part 2, pointed out that the organ was all wrong. Bach wrote his cantatas for his church in Leipzig and he would have played the bravura organ part on the large organ there. In his recording of the Easter Oratorio and Magnificat, Paul McCreesh used a Saxon church with an organ by a pupil of Silberman with the strings (220.127.116.11) played to the left of the organ and the wind to the right. It is this arrangement that we must keep in mind when hearing these chamber versions of Bach's pieces.
The concert opened with a lovely account of Vernügte Ruh, BWV 170. The scarcity of the strings meaning that the oboe parts received a lovely prominence. This was followed by an organ concerto constructed by Halls from cantata movements, in fact the work mirrors the Harpsichord Concerto in E major BWV1053, but stays in the original key of D major and uses 2 oboes d'amore and a taille. This was charming enough, but somehow lacked body. The organ tinkled away neatly enough, under Halls dexterous fingers, but the work seemed to lack body, simply turning into an array of delicious sounds. Perhaps we need to hear it on a real Silbermann organ!
The 2nd half opened with the sinfonia from Cantata BWV42, Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, a charming and lively piece which made a lot of the 3 oboes. Then finally we had a second cantata for alto Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35. This is a big work and I wish that I could say that it had a profound effect on me. Bach writes it in two parts, each introduced by an orchestra sinfonia with big organ part (these two also became an organ concerto) and there are 3 arias and two big recitatives. Unfortunately Blaze did not seem to be quite on form and in the final joyful aria he did not reach his usual fine form and the passage-work was a little more untidy than we had been led to expect from this fine singer. That said, there was a lot to appreciate.
So, all in all, not quite a perfect evening but there was much to admire. Note to self, I want to hear these alto cantatas in a real church, not too big, with a fine 18th century style organ!