Tuesday 22 December 2015

Christmas in Leipzig - Solomon's Knot at St John's Smith Square

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot in rehearsal for a previous performance
at St John's Smith Square
Schelle Machet die Tore welt, Kuhnau Magnificat, Bach Magnificat in E flat; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The first version of Bach's Magnificat in a joyous version with music by his predecessors in Leipzig

Having performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio in Spitalfields,  Solomon's Knot (joint artistic directors Jonathan Sells and James Halliday) made a second appearance at a Christmas Festival, this time at St John's Smith Square as part of its 30th festival. Bach was on the menu again, but the ensemble's programme Christmas in Leipzig combined Bach's Magnificat in E flat  (the first version, with Christmas interludes) with the Magnificat by his predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau and an Advent motet by Kuhnau's predecessor Johann Schelle, Machet die Tore welt.

The music was performed by ten singers  (Zoe Brookshaw , Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Charmian Bedford, Lucy Goddard, Kate Symonds-Joy, Benjamin Williamson, Thomas Herford, Ben Thapa, Alex Ashworth and Jonathan Sells) with an orchestra based on eight strings (led by James Toll, with Leo Duarte as first oboe). The auditorium had been re-configured with the performers placed in the body of the nave with the audience on three sides round them, thus bringing everyone closer to the performers sometimes at the expense of sight-lines. The singers were on a platform behind the instrumentalists.

The sense of communication was heightened not just by the intimacy of the staging, but that the singers sang from memory (as is often the case with Solomon's Knot). Though, as two of the planned performers were ill, Benjamin Williamson and Ben Thapa were last minute replacements and inevitably used music, but this had an admirably minor effect on the general communicability of the performance.

The group performed without a conductor, which with music as complex and large scale as Bach's Magnificat means identifying who is primary at any one time. Continuo accompanied sections are relatively straightforward, and in the concerted passages James Toll was a very active leader, and this active role was also taken by oboist Leo Duarte.

Schelle's motet Machet die Tore welt (Lift up your heads, ye gates) sets a German version of verses from Psalm 24 written for the first Sunday in Advent. Not much of Schelle's music survives and it is one his few pieces available. The music is written for SATB choir with an instrumental ensemble which includes trumpets but omits oboes. It started in a perkily attractive manner, and then continued seamlessly interleaving solos and tutti moments into a whole. For solos, Schelle slimmed down the instrumental texture to just continuo but there was also a sense of the music being part of an engaging whole. Vocally and instrumentally the performance was very stylish with a lovely bounce to the accompaniment.

Kuhnau's Magnificat is his largest surviving vocal work and in fact it uses the same text as JS Bach's work. The Latin text of the canticle is interleaved with texts from Martin Luther, and from St Luke's Gospel which summarise the Christmas story. The opening had a lovely swagger with Kuhnau writing for choir, and orchestra including trumpets and oboes. Kuhnau's setting, giving each verse a different treatment, clearly inspired Bach's and there were moments when you suspected Bach was directly influenced by his predecessor. Clare Lloyd brought joy, and fine passagework, to Et exultavit with fine oboe playing from Leo Duarte; Benjamin Williamson sang the gentle and poignant in Quia respexit; Thomas Herford expressively melodic in the lovely Et misericordia with its throbbing instrumental accompaniment; Ben Thapa sang the Suscepit Israel; and Alex Ashworth brought a lovely swagger and great passagework to the Gloria Patri. The ensemble passages round these were many and varied in texture, with the group bringing a lovely joyful swagger to the more outgoing music and a nice character to the whole. The interpolations were generally set chorally and contributed to the highly varied nature of the piece. The whole developed into a nicely satisfying celebratory work, and the essentially joyful message was conveyed wholeheartedly by both singers and instrumentalists.

In the second half we had the more familiar Magnificat of Bach, except this was the first version which is in E flat, not D, has the Christmas interpolations and some differences in scoring. But the overall structure is the same. We started with great energy and a lovely rhythmic bounce. With the singers behind the orchestra (and the oboes and trumpets between me and the choir) the sound was more blended with a greater sense of the orchestra being part of the ensemble (as Bach intended) rather than simply accompanying the voices as can often happen. With only two voices per part it would have been interesting if the singers had experimented with the Lutheran practice of grouping voices in choirs and so in this case having two groups of five singers, one of each voice type.

Lucy Goddard's Et exsultavit was nicely poised, with rich tones and a nice line. Zoe Brookshaw gave us a lovely cool clear line in Quia respexit but I would have like a bit more sense of character, she was partnered by some fine oboe playing from Leo Duarte and fine strong bass. Alex Ashworth was vigorous with fine passagework in Quia fecit with a lovely pawky bassoon accompaniment. Benjamin Williamson and Ben Thapa gave us a lovely even and finely balanced duet in Et misericordia, the whole having a lovely sway to it. Deposuit was sung by Thomas Herford starting from a good firm opening and the rest sprang from there. He is a very communicative singer, with a nice evenness to the top of his voice. Kate Symonds-Joy brought firmness and evenness of tone and a lovely sense of character to Esurientes, with the oboes players switching to recorder. In Suscepit Israel, sung by Clare Lloyd, Zoe Brookshaw and Benjamin Williamson, I wanted just a little more from the singers as it seemed slightly too reticent despite the admirably restrained performance of the choral by the trumpeter.

Bach brings a greater sense of variety to his scoring of the interpolated passages, and in fact interpolates them at slightly different points to Kuhnau. Von Himmel hoch was a cappella, a complex polyphonic setting with the chorale sung by the sopranos, and the singers gave us a lovely clarity and vibrancy in their performance. Freuet euch un jubiliert was also a chorale set polyphonically but using only the upper voices (no basses) and with a continue accompaniment, the whole having a lovely fluidity and flow. Gloria in excelsis Deo was busy yet surprisingly low key, and with a delightful ease to the performance. Virga Jesse gave us an appealing duet for Zoe Brookshaw and Jonathan Sells.

The choral passages took full advantage of the flexibility and opportunities for communication which using just two singers per part gave, but the concerted moments had a lovely expansiveness. There was a nice bravura to the more complex passagework, and overall a lovely sense of joy. Both the enthusiasm for performing Bach's work, and a sense of communication of the joyous message of the piece. This was my final Christmas concert, and a gloriously positive way to finish the musical Christmas season.

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