Wednesday 16 December 2015

Shared experience - Bach's Christmas Oratorio from Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot
Bach Christmas Oratorio; Solomon's Knot; Spitalfields Music Winter Festival at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 15 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Sung from memory, a remarkably direct chamber-scale performance

For the final concert in this year's Spitalfields Music Winter Festival, on Tuesday 15 December 2015 performed in the distressed grandeur of St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, the ensemble Solomon's Knot performed four cantatas (nos. 1,3,5,6) from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Solomon's Knot, joint artistic directors Jonathan Sells and James Halliday, is an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists who are interested in removing the barriers between performers and audience. One way of doing this is for the singers to perform from memory, communicating directly to the audience without any score or conductor in between and this is how they performed the Christmas Oratorio.

The singers (Zoe Brookshaw , Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Michal Czerniawski, Kate Symonds-Joy, Gwilym Bowen, Peter Davoren, Alex Ashworth and Jonathan Sells) sat in a shallow arc facing the audience with the orchestra (led by John Crockatt with Leo Duarte as first oboe) behind. This was a small scale performance, with just eight strings and eight singers, but it is probably the scale of performance which Bach was used to. In the pre-concert talk, given by Jonathan Sells and James Halliday, the issue of Bach's expectations and performance practice came up and though Sells mentioned the issues surrounding the practice of performing Bach one singer to a part, he did not dwell on it clearly wishing to avoid controversy and instead emphasised the group's interest in performing the music as chamber music. After all, with no conductor they have to listen and watch each other. But whatever the motivation, the results were probably quite close to the sort of performance Bach might have expected.

Another factor which, ironically, Bach might have recognised was a certain earnestness in the delivery, responding to the Lutheran text. Singing directly to us, the singers conveyed a remarkable intensity which reminded me of meetings of the Christian group which I attended as a student. Perhaps, through a concern to express the deep emotions of the text, the singers gave us a very serious, intent and sober presentation clearly wanting to seem moved by the narrative being presented. But though the text reflects the Lutheran concerns over man's sin and Christ's sacrifice, Bach music transcends this and radiates with pure joy. Luckily, though the singers did not always look joyous enough, this came out in their performance music.

This was apparent from the opening notes of the first chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket! (Rejoice, be glad!) where the trumpets and drums joined an instrumental ensemble notable for the speedy and bouncy delivery of the music, with a highly involving energy and a lovely sense of the music swaying (possible in response to Leo Duarte's highly mobile oboe). When the singers entered there was a matching crispness and directness to their performance, with a great sense of the words. Throughout all four cantatas the big choruses were all notable moments, with singers and instrumentalists combining to produce music with radiated joy in every lively note.

By contrast the chorales, by and large, had a quiet intimacy, intensity and real directness to them with the singers bringing out the shading of the words.  Sometimes, though, Bach deliberately creates something larger scale and more complex such as the chorale which finishes the first cantata where he adds trumpet flourishes, but even here the singers created a real sense of intimacy.

Because the eight singers all sang in the choruses and chorales, and shared out the solos there was a real feeling of communal experience, as if they were telling each other the story. The dramatic impetus moves around quite a lot, with some moments of dramatic presentation (the Wise Men) but also lots of narration from the Evangelist, and the group's presentation reflected this.

Sharing out the solos meant that perhaps we did not get the sort of consistently perfect, stylish singing that you might expect with a group which engaged a set of star soloists, but instead each singer was securely within the part and there was this lovely directness to the performances, and a shared experience being presented to the audience.

Gwilym Bowen and Peter Davoren made contrasting Evangelists, with Bowen having quite a soft grained voice and earnestly direct delivery whilst Davoren had a brighter more high tension tenor which brought a lovely edge to the recitatives and really made them tell. And Bowen brought a sense of drama to his recitative and aria in the final part, really convincing us that he meant every word.

Alto Kate Symonds-Joy had a lovely strong, even voice and a rather direct, up-front delivery. Her aria Bereite dich, Zion in part one was serious yet shapely. Counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski had a lovely soft-grained voice with great ease of delivery in the top register, and plangently expressive delivery.

Bass Alex Ashworth had a even tone and a nice mobility in the passage-work, combined with a very sober sense of delivery particularly noticeable in the brilliant aria Grosser Herr in part one, and Ashworth also made a nicely dramatic Herod in part six.  Bass Jonathan Sells gave an impressive and creditable account of the aria Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen in part five, but I found the delivery a little too soberly earnest and rather wanted a bit more concert bravura and showing off in the delivery..

Soprano Zoe Brookshaw and Jonathan Sells duetted finely in Herr, dein Mitleid in part one, both showing a nice mobility and immediacy, creating a real sense of ensemble and entirely lacking in portentousness.  And Zoe Brookshaw brought a lovely sense of style and poise to her aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Handen, singing with firm, flexible tone.

Where this presentation gained was the moments when Bach uses soloists in groups (such as the trio in part five) or puts soloists in contrast with the ensemble. Here the small scale meant that these moments flowed nicely out of the rest of the presentation and had a sense of immediacy. The group extended this into some  of the choruses by having single soloists start the chorus and the rest join in later, bringing their sense of sharing an experience into their delivery.

The instrumental contributions were as equally notable. The three trumpets producing some impressively bright, fluid tone without ever over dominating the ensemble, the finely responsive continue and the alert string playing. Leader John Crockatt gave us some vibrantly expressive obligato playing but it was the oboists Leo Duarte and Robert de Bree who seemed to relish most their moments to shine. Bach gives the oboe family lots of moments in the spotlight in the cantatas, whether it is using oboes, oboes d'amore or oboes da caccia. It was a shame that we did not get to hear part two with the lovely moments for the shepherds pipes, but elsewhere there was plenty to enjoy in Duarte and de Bree's vibrant tone, chestnuty timbre and lively playing.

There was the odd moment when having a conductor might have helped with ensemble at the openings of movements, but overall the sense of joint responsibility for the music and the need to listen and watch whoever is primary at that moment was completely remarkable and a tribute to the performer's experience and musicality.

More than anything else this was a communal experience with all members of the group contributing to a finely expressive and remarkably direct performance. So direct that indeed it did become a shared experience with the audience too.

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