Saturday 10 August 2013

John Eliot Gardiner conducts Bach at the Proms

Sir John Eliot Gardiner (c) Sheila Rock - Decca
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
(c) Sheila Rock - Decca
The late night Prom on Friday 9 August 2013 at the Royal Albert Hall featured John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in a pair of Bach works which do not get the exposure that they deserve, the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio. Both works contain some vintage Bach but are relatively short and live in the awkward territory between cantata and what we nowadays think of as oratorio. Along with soloists Hannah Morrison, Meg Bragle, Nicholas Mulroy and Peter Harey, Gardiner and his forces gave us life-enhancing performances which made you wonder why we don't hear this music more.

Bach's Easter Oratorio went through a series of curious transformations before Bach settled on its final form. It started out life as a birthday cantata, with a text by Picander, for Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels in February 1725, Picander and Bach then turned it into a cantata for Easter Sunday in 1725, before re-cycling the work again as birthday cantata for Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming. The 1725 Easter version had four named characters, Mary Mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John but in the 1730's Bach returned to the work, dropped the characters names and made some other changes, turning it into the Easter Oratorio. There is still no direct narrative, no Evangelist, just a series of recitatives and arias which touch on the Easter story. Though there is much vintage Bach in the work, particularly in the glorious orchestral writing, as a contemplation of the Easter story it lacks the emotional depth of the Passions. The pastoral nature of the original birthday cantata is still discernible in the music.

The worked opened with a Sinfonia which Gardiner gave with bouncing joy, the three trumpets setting things off nicely. The stately Adagio which followed included a lovely, long-lined opening solo. The opening chorus returned to the mood of bouncing joy, with the chorus joining in gloriously.

Gardiner used quite big forces, 45 instrumentalists and 36 singers with the soloists coming from the choir. Far larger forces than anything Bach might have been able to contemplate I suspect, but they made a glorious sound in the context of the Royal Albert Hall though from where we were sitting in the stalls the harpsichord was sweetly inaudible in the concerted moments.

Hannah Morrison's aria Seele, deine Spezereien was a lovely piece with just flute and continuo for accompaniment. Morrison sang with clear pure tones with a nice expressive edge to them and was nicely poised in the quite elaborate vocal lines. Nicholas Mulroy's aria, Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer started with gentle murmurings in the strings and recorders, with Mulroy joining in in a gently comforting vein that seemed, perhaps, slightly too small scale for the Royal Albert Hall.

So far the recitatives had been quite dry, but the following soprano and alto one had a wonderfully dramatic cello part, leading to the alto ara, Saget mir geschwinde. A lively piece with a busy oboe part, deftly played with fine rounded tone. The brisk and busy solo part was sung with nice directness by Meg Bragle. For the final chorus the trumpets returned to give us a rather grand, but still bouncing conclusion.

Between the two oratorios, Catherine Bott interview John Eliot Gardiner on stage, combining humour with informed didacticism

The Ascension Oratorio is more conventional in format, having a part for the Evangelist who recites texts from the gospels. The work was written in 1735, the work is also rather confusingly known as Cantata no. 11 (thank's to a misattribution in the first complete Bach edition in 1853). The opening chorus, again with trumpets and choir dancing gloriously, is probably based on a lost secular cantata from 1732 (to celebrate the rebuilding of St Thomas's School in Leipzig).  Nicholas Mulroy was the Evangelist, his contributions quite short but very expressive, whilst Peter Harvey made a dramatic contribution in his recitative.

The first aria, for alto, Ach, bleibe doch, is related to the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B Minor (compiled in the late 1740's). Both are probably derived from a lost wedding cantata of 1725. The aria was sung with beautiful directness by Meg Bragle. The chorale, Nun lieget alles under dir opened in a beautifully hushed manner with choir accompanied by just flute and continuo before opening out into something grander. In many places in the work, Bach added a flute to the continuo to magical effect.

The tenor bass duet in the following recitative was great fun, leading to an expressive sequence from alto (Meg Bragle), and tenor (Nicholas Mulroy) before the final aria, Jesu, dein Gnadenblicke for soprano with two solo flutes and solo oboe. This probably also comes from the 1725 wedding cantata. Taken at quite a gentle speed, Morrison sang the quite busy solo part with beautiful clarity and line. The final movement in the cantata was a chorale, in which Bach surrounded the sober choral part with a toe-tapping accompaniment from the full orchestra (including those trumpets).

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