Friday 22 December 2017

Collegiate and celebratory Bach, or perhaps Bach in party mode! B minor mass from Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot (Photo James Berry)
Solomon's Knot (Photo James Berry)
Bach B minor mass; Solomon's Knot; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Small scale, from memory & without a conductor: A very human B minor mass

This is third time I have reviewed Bach's B minor Mass for Planet Hugill, the other two were at King’s Place [see Ruth's review] and the Barbican [see Ruth's review] last year. This time it was at St John's Smith Square, on 18 December 2017 with Solomon's Knot. It was the second time I have seen Solomon’s Knot, the first time being the anonymous Baroque opera L’ospedale a couple of years ago at Wilton’s Music Hall [see Ruth's review] and, with its exploration of dilemmas about who pays for our health, getting more relevant by the week.

JS Bach wrote the Mass in B minor not for a Lutheran service but, it is assumed, for his CV as he was looking around for other potential employers when things were looking precarious at Leipzig. He never made it to the Dresden or Danzig courts as he had in mind, but he did leave behind this wonderful portfolio – his monument – adding settings of the ‘Osanna’ and ‘Benedictus’ that were not part of the liturgy in Leipzig. Only the ‘Confiteor’ seems to have been composed especially, the other movements recycled from earlier material.

Solomon’s Knot go with Rifkin’s assertion that the piece was written for solo singers with ‘ripieno’ movements, and they exploited the idea that Bach was writing for prospective employers who were keen on Neapolitan and operatic idioms. They sang and often played from memory.
They performed without a conductor, which meant a shifting democratic approach throughout, adding to the drama and the storytelling. If one thing was sacrificed, it was the completeness of the sound as the singers on the ends needed to face inwards for the sake of the ensemble. But we were listening with our eyes as well.

At the top of the first and second ‘halves’ the text burst out of nowhere with the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Credo’ respectively – we were hooked from the off. There was a nervous energy that you get when you have to negotiate everything in real time. The smaller numbers had an improvised feel –the ‘Qui sedes’ had Guy James and oboist Leo Duarte larky conversational mode with the strings commenting from the sidelines. Likewise the playfulness of the ‘Domine Deus – Clare Lloyd-Griffiths and Peter Davoren and a cheeky flute duet. Ciara Hendrick sang the ‘Laudamus te’ teasing the string section. Alex Ashworth’s ‘Quoniam’, duetting with Kathryn Zeverbergen on horn, was full of awe. Jonny Sells’ ‘Et in unum spiritum sanctam’ tender and mellifluous and Kate Symonds-Joy’s ‘Agnus Dei’ made time stand still.

The choruses were equally well characterised: ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ ended the first ‘act’ in festive mood. The ‘Crucifixus’ had us in suspense until we bounced back with ‘Et resurrexit’. ‘Confiteor’ had all the confusion that is written into the score plus the added wildness of the tuning (a packed St John’s in winter is bound to play havoc with these instruments). Then a newly tuned D major ‘Sanctus’ punched through with the trumpets – it was as if the sun had come out.

My favourite bit of the evening was the ‘Osanna’ – the chorus full of excitement, leave the stage for the solo tenor (Thomas Herford) to sing his thoughtful ‘Benedictus’ then they all pile back on, a bit more chatty and tipsy, for the reprise of ‘Osanna’, and for the playout the band cranked up the fun and games. It was like any number of operatic party scenes, but without the champagne glasses.

I loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but you can go to hear other groups if you want perfection. It was a very human B minor Mass and it was great to be part of it.

Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Solomon’s Knot
Soprano I – ZoĆ« Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths
Soprano II – Jessica Gillingwater, Ciara Hendrick
Alto – Kate Symonds-Joy, Guy James
Tenor – Thomas Herfrod, Peter Davoren
Bass – Jonathan Sells, Alex Ashworth

Violin I – James Toll (leader), Guy Button
Violin II – Jamie Campbell, Beatrice Phillips
Viola – Joanne Miller, Victoria Bernath
Cello – Jonathan Rees
Violone – Jan Zahourek
Flute – Eva Caballero, Thomas Hancox
Oboe – Leo Duarte, Robert De Bree
Bassoon – Inga Maria Klaucke, Hayley Pullen
Horn – Kathryn Zevenbergen
Trumpet – Russell Gilmour, William Russell, Gareth Hodinott
Timpani – Rosemary Toll
Harpsichord & Organ – Chad Kelly

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