Wednesday 19 February 2014

Cantus Cölln at the Wigmore Hall

Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel - photo Wolf Nolting
Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel
photo Wolf Nolting
Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2014
Star rating: 3.5

All Bach programme for the German vocal ensemble's Wigmore Hall debut

Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel were amazingly making their Wigmore Hall debut at their concert on 18 February 2014. Their programme, Jesu meine Freude - Motets and early cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, presented Bach's motets Jesu meine Freude and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden alongside three early cantatas Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee BWV 18 and Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4. All performed with one singer per part accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, with the motets also having string and continuo accompaniment.

The ensemble performed with two violins, two violas, cello, double bass, oboe and bassoon along with organ. The upper strings and oboe were lined up stage right, with the four singers in a symmetrical position stage left, in the middle were the continuo instruments of organ, cello, bass and bassoon, plus a trumpeter in the balcony for one cantata. The singers were Magdalene Harer and Mechthild Bach (soprano), Elisabeth Popien (alto), Hans Jorg Mammel (tenor) and Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass). The players were Ute Hartwich, Katharina Spreckelsen, Adrian Rovatkay, Ulla Bundies, Anetta Sichelschmidt, Friederike Kremers, Volke Hagendorn, Albert Bruggen, Matthia Muller and Carsten Lohff, all conducted by Konrad Junghänel

The same
basic layout was used for all the items in the programme. To a certain extent this had the effect of integrating the voices into the overall ensemble and this was on a par with the very instrumental way the voices were used. The singers used minimal vibrato with an interesting edge to the voice, the sort of delivery which requires commitment and accuracy from the performer. The singers of Cantus Cölln were notable for their very great commitment to the text. Junghänel seemed to want a highly interventionist approach to the music, with the text often being highly pointed and dramatically presented. Vocal production was not without its idiosyncrasies and I did feel that there was a tendency, from the sopranos in particular, to squeeze notes out. There is not doubting the group's musicality, but their vocal and performance style is a highly particular one.

The cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12 dates from 1714 (it was composed for the Third Sunday after Easter) whilst Bach was working in Weimar. The opening sinfonia has a lovely solo oboe part, which can be taken to represent the weeping and wailing of the title. This leads into a chorus which was highly expressive, with a lovely throbbing accompaniment in the strings. The result was clearly deeply felt, but highly stylised. The alto aria, Kreuz und Kronen, had a lovely flowing and rather busy oboe part, with a prominent bassoon. Popien had a nicely plangent voice, characterfully presented though the voice did not dominate the ensemble, she was clearly one amongst equals. For the bass aria, Ich folge Christo nach we had a lovely interweaving of two violins and a busy bassoon, complementing the very vivid delivery from Friedrich. We had a trumpet obligato for the tenor aria, Sei getreu with Mammel giving us some neat passagework. Finally a short final chorus, also with trumpet obligato.

Next came Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, one of Bach's shortest but most delightful motets, here performed with accompaniment. Though no parts survive for this particular motet, it is known that they were so performed in Leipzig. Junghänel's speed was quite brisk, with the singers bringing a nice light feel to the music and making it well sprung. Runs were beautifully clean. We were clearly listening to four solo voices, but they acted as a fine flexible ensemble. Here, though I ahve to return to the group's sound which in this work came over as very stylised albeit finely expressive.

For the cantata Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee which also dates from 1714, Bach uses an accompaniment of four violas with no violins. This gives the instrumental music a very particular sound, one which Bach's capitalises on in the lovely opening sinfonia. The work is a dramatic dialogue, with a long series of accompanied recitatives punctuated by short choruses led by the soprano, with a final aria and chorus at the end. As the notes pointed out, the work is quite operatic and was here given a finely dramatic, and highly characterised performance. The aria at the end gave the soprano a solo moment, and she sang with a lovely flexibly, allied to quite a distinctively plangent timbre to her voice. The cantata ended with a chorus with was a short chorale.

After the interval we had the cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden which may be as early as 1708 and even pre-date Bach's appointment in Weimar. It was written for Easter Day and is quite a grand piece with four soloists dividing arias and duets between them. The opening sinfonia was plangently expressive, with the violins making expressive use of their vibrato-free lines. The opening chorus is quite a complex piece with Bach creating busy textures around the chorale tune. There were some brilliant individual moments, but I didn't quite feel that it came together as a whole.

The soprano and alto duet, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt, had two lovely intertwining lines over a moving ground bass from the cello, with the two singers making a very strong, direct sound. The tenor aria Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn combined a brilliantly busy solo violin with a chorale like tenor solo, with Mammel giving us some nice neat runs in the Hallelujah. The following chorus gave us a busy texture of highly articulated runs surrounding the poised chorale from the alto. Bass soloist Friedrich gave a highly vivid account of the aria Hie ist das rechte Osterlamm, though not for the first time I did wonder whether less might be more, when it came to the group's highly committed articulation of the text. The soprano and tenor duet So feiern wir das hohe Fest had a busy texture with lovely triplet runs, neatly done but I did wonder whether a little more bravura might not have come amiss. The final chorus repeated the opening material.

The final item on the programme was Bach's gloriously large scale motet Jesu, meine Freude, again with string accompaniment. The work's 11 movements are arranged symmetrically with a large scale fugue at the centre, and alternate movements being based on the chorale. Within this structure Bach works a great deal of magic. The work is a technical challenge to sing, but also a highly satisfying one.

I have been used to hearing the work performed by a small choir, so it was highly illuminating to hear it sung one to a part. The opening chorus was very articulated, with the text pointed in a highly expressive manner. The second movement was similarly vividly projected with some striking runs on the word Wandeln. By the third movement chorale I was finding the highly articulated treatment a little too much. The three upper voices in the fourth movement were a delight, though the next movement was again stylised. The fugue in the sixth movement was beautifully light and transparent, whilst the seventh had just the right amount of vivid liveliness. The lower three voices brought a nice swing to the eighth movement then in the ninth we had beautifully intertwining lines for the upper three voices over the bass's moving ground bass. The tenth movement was again very vivid, with some lovely rhythmic felicities leading to the final chorale.

The reaction of the capacity audience highly enthusiastic and we were treated to an encore, the well known final movement from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, commonly known as Jesu joy of man's desiring.

This was an evening of intense and dramatic music making, with the works clearly receiving deeply felt and highly characterised performances. I have to confess that there were one or two moments when I did wonder whether pressure of touring and lack of rehearsal were a bit too much for the performers. But overall this was a concert of a very high standard, in very involving performances though the ensemble's very particular sound may perhaps not have appealed to everyone.

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