Tuesday 18 December 2012

English Concert at Spitalfields

Christ Church, Spitalfields, London
For the penultimate concert of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, the English Concert brought a concert with a seasonal theme to Christ Church, Spitalfields on Monday 17 December. Lawrence Cummings conducted the English Concert and the choir of the English Concert in Corelli's Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6 No. 8, Christmas Concerto, Bach's Cantata BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch Empor and Bach's Magnificat in D BWV 243 with the Christmas interpolations.

Arcangelo Corelli's eighth concerto from his Op 6 set of Concerti Grossi has acquired the nick name the Christmas Concerto because of the final movement, a Pastorale full of lilting melodies over a drone bass, which links it to the Italian tradition of shepherds coming into town to serenade the Christ child on shawms and bagpipes. Lawrence Cummings, who directed the concert from the organ, started the first movement at a brisk pace. Throughout the work Vivace and Allegro were very lively, but pace relaxed suitably in the slower movements. For the second movement, Allegro, this meant that the bass line was amazingly busy, but brilliantly played; over this the violins spun some fine long lines. In the third movement, it was texture rather than melody that came over. The play of the different string textures were brought out well, but the lovely melodic lines were rather underplayed. The fourth movement was a poised and crisp Vivace which clearly had the players dancing. In the fifth movement, Allegro, there were hints of something which resembled uncertainty of ensemble, as if there hadn't been quite enough rehearsal time. And the final Pastorale was all drones and suspensions, as it should be. In the generous acoustic at Christ Church there was in fact no great timbral difference between the soli and the tutti.

Now, here's a conundrum. Whether Bach used one, two or three singers per part, his soloists would have had to sing both the chorus and the solo parts. Now choral singing is not the same technique as solo singing. The one requires care to blend with others, subjection of self; whereas the other requires projection and personality. So were Bach's own performers brilliantly split personalities, or were his performances always a little bit off in some way that would send him home to dinner rather niggled at the way the choral bass line had stood out too much or the solo soprano (a boy treble in his day) had failed to project.

The one-to-a-part issue is germane here as I suspect that the different techniques rather start to merge when you consider a chorus made up of just 4 or 5 singers rather than 12.

Lawrence Cumming's performance with the English Concert seemed designed to test this thesis by using singers from the choir of the English Concert as soloists. The choir consisted of 12 singers, and during the course of the evening each of the singers did a solo (some more than one). No names were given for the soloists in the programme. The singers were Emma Bran Gabbott, Alicia Carroll, Natalie Clifton Griffith and Rebecca Outram (sopranos), Carris Jones and Timothy Travers Brown (altos), Samuel Boden, Nicholas Pritchard and Richard Rowntree (tenors), Robert Rice, Christopher Sheldrake and Michael Wallace (basses). (Update: see at the bottom of this article for details of who sang what).

Bach's cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor went through a variety of versions, starting with a secular cantata, before ending up as a cantata for the first Sunday in Advent. The orchestra uses two oboes d'amore and the opening movement included some lovely solo playing from these instruments. But the balance of the choir was a bit odd, with the basses prominent. The singers stood in a half circle behind the players, which was a nice idea but meant that some had to project over the orchestra more than others. But also, the balance of voices rather favoured the men (4 sopranos, 2 altos, 3 tenors and 3 basses), this balance was more extreme in the Magnificat where the sopranos split into 2. In fact, as the evening progressed the balance improved, as the singers came to grips with matching the ensemble to the acoustic, but there was always the feeling that the choir was a couple of sopranos light (or a tenor and a bass too heavy)

The first chorale in cantata, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, was a duet for soprano and alto (with counter tenor Tim Travers Brown taking the alto solo). There was an interesting contrast between the two voices, but  though both sang nicely there was never quite a feeling of synergy between them. Also, to my ears, balance slightly favoured the lower voice.

The tenor arias, Die Libe zieht mit sanften Schritten featured some fine oboe d'amore playing and a lovely lyric tenor with a nice line. The chorale, Singt die Saiten in Cythara has rather jubilant words but Bach sets it for chorus in an amazingly sober manner. A wonderfully infectious accompaniment heralded the bass arias Willkommen, werter Schatz, the bass soloist had a fine confident projection, but his voice did not seem quite ideally relaxed. For the following chorale Der du bist dem Vater gleich, the three tenors sang the chorale line accompanied by an amazingly busy trio sonata involving both oboes d'amore.

The final, soprano, aria is one of the highlights of the cantata with the soloist accompanied by muted violin solo. Here the solo soprano was sung with a nice feeling for the line of the piece, but in a rather reticent, under projected manner. Nicely shaped, and technically good, this was singing which did not quite make the leap from choral to solo.

Another factor in all the solos seemed to be that the soloists were all a little too dependent on their music. Whether or not this was just due to nerves, it did rather inhibit projection and communication.

Nothing was said at all in the programme about who the soloists were, or the fact that they were being taken by members choir. Quite clearly this was a deliberate scheme, but it would have been nice to have heard Lawrence Cummings' thoughts on the matter. I would have liked to attend the pre-concert talk (in which Laurence Cummings discussed the programme with Dr Timothy Jones). But travel time from West London meant that we only managed to arrive 15 minutes before the concert started, and I feel that enjoyment of a concert should not be dependent on having attended the pre-concert talk.

Another interesting issue arose with the version of the Bach Magnificat that we were hearing. Bach originally wrote the Magnificat in E flat, with Christmas interpolations (the canticle in Latin, the interpolations in German). He then revised the piece, moving it down a semi-tone to D, taking out the Christmas interpolations and performing it for the Feast of the Presentation. What we seemed to be hearing was the revised Magnificat in D, but with the Christmas interpolations, presumably transposed into the new key. Again, not much was said in the programme.

The orchestra were joined by flutes and trumpets, with the opening chorus featuring some brilliant and extremely high trumpet playing. (No wonder ensembles favour the lower key!). The result was gloriously infectious and celebratory. The soprano aria, Et exultavit was sung by a nice lyric voice with a good feeling for line, but rather small in scale. The first Christmas interpolation, Vom Himmel hoch, had the sopranos singing the chorale slowly with the lower parts rather busier, all unaccompanied.

The next soprano aria, Quia respexit was sung by a singer with a lovely voice, with a nice line and fine projection but hardly any words. The contrast, when the vigorous chorus come in with Omnes generationes, interrupting the soloist's meditations, was brilliant. For the bass aria Quia fecit mihi magna we had an interesting, slightly grainy voice with a nice ping to it and lively passagework, though the lower notes seemed to present some trouble.

The second Christmas interpolation, Freut euch und jubiliert, was a lovely piece for chorus (just Soprano, Alto and Tenor) plus continuo. For the alto and tenor duet, Et misericoridia, we had a female alto though I did wonder why not use the counter-tenor as a voice which would blend well with the tenor's. Instead we had an interesting contrast between the two timbres. The chorus, Fecit potentiam, taken at a vigorous speed and showing the singers' brilliant prowess.

The third Christmas interpolation, Gloria in Excelsis deo, was a lively choral one. Another tenor solo, Deposuit potentes saw the singer hardly using the book and really communicating with the audience. His performance was nicely vigorous though the tessitura did not seem ideal for him.

Counter-tenor Tim Travers Brown re-appeared, accompanied by a lovely pair of flutes in Esurientes; a lovely performance which was not score-bound at all. In the final Christmas interpolation, Virga Jesse,  soprano and bass soloists were pitted against each other in some fearsome passagework, both coming out brilliantly unscathed.

We concluded with the lovely trio, Suscepit Israel, for two sopranos and alto, before the glorious final choruses.

The use of a variety of soloists rather made the chorus passages stand out, for their brilliantly communicative chorus work. But it was lovely to hear the varied Christmas interpolations for once, all in fine performances.

The audience reception was very warm and the performers gave us as an encore the final chorus from Bach's  Christmas Oratorio which uses the same chorale tune as the first Christmas interpolation, Vom Himmel hoch an aptly glorious way to finish a fascinating and enjoyable concert.

Soloists in the Bach items:-

JS Bach Cantata BWV36
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland - Emma Brain-Gabbott (soprano) & Timothy Travers-Brown (countertenor)
Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten - Samuel Boden (tenor)
Wilkommen werter Schatz! - Robert Rice (bass)
Auch mit gedämpften - Natalie Clifton-Griffith (soprano)

JS Bach Magnificat in D major
Et exsultavit - Rebecca Outram (soprano)
Quia respexit - Alicia Carroll (soprano)
Quia fecit mihi magna - Chris Sheldrake (bass)
2nd Christmas Laud
Sop I: Alicia Carroll & Natalie Clifton-Griffith
Sop II: Emma Brain-Gabbott & Rebecca Outram
Alto: Carris Jones & and Timothy Travers-Brown
Tenor: Samuel Boden & Nick Pritchard

Et misericordia - Carris Jones (alto) & Richard Rowntree (tenor)
Deposuit - Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Esurientes Timothy Travers-Brown (countertenor)
4th Christmas Laud - Natalie Clifton Griffiths (soprano) & Michael Wallace (bass)
Suscepit Israel Alicia Carroll (soprano), Emma Brain-Gabbott (soprano),

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