Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Christmas in Leipzig - Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Christmas in Leipzig
Schelle, Kuhnau, Bach; 
Solomon's Knot; 
Milton Court Concert Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 December 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The Baroque collective, Solomon's Knot, brings its inimitable style and engaging sense of communication to Christmas music by Bach and his predecessors

Solomon's Knot returned to the Barbican on Monday 10 December 2018 following the group's successful Barbican debut earlier this year performing Bach motets at the Bach Weekend [see Ruth's review]. Monday's concert at Milton Court Concert Hall featured the group's Christmas in Leipzig programme [which we first heard in 2015, see my review] which paired Bach's first version of the Magnificat (in E flat with the Christmas interpolations) with music by his two predecessors, Johann Kuhnau's Magnificat in C major and Johann Schelle's Machet die Tore weit.

Founded 10 years ago and led by joint artistic directors James Halliday and Jonathan Sells, the group is a collective which brings a different approach to Baroque music.  Yes the performances are Historically Informed on period instruments, and yes the forces use approximate to those which Bach probably used with a vocal group of ten (going down to eight for the Schelle) and an instrumental ensemble based on eight strings, and solos are sung by members of the ensemble stepping out.

But all sorts of modern performing traditions have started to accumulate around the performance of Baroque music, and Solomon's Knot avoids some of these. It performs without a conductor, and without the visible direction of a keyboard/director. Instead, the responsibility is collective, with the opening of a movement/section the responsibility of those starting it. This has plusses and minuses, sometimes a guiding hand is helpful in risk-taking, but the collective approach is a valid one and brings a greater level of communicability. You can see the singers and instrumentalists looking at each other, paying attention to what is going on and reacting. These are very much ensemble performances.

The other difference is that the singers of Solomon's Knot perform from memory so that their communication with the audience is very direct with no score or conductor getting in the way. Some very fine vocal ensembles give performances which, rather than being for the audience, seem to be simply allowing the audience to eavesdrop on something which is essentially private. Not here, we can see and hear the group from the outset. Apart from the group of large-scale solos at the centre of Bach's Magnificat when the singers vacated the stage, everyone was on-stage all the time and when not singing, people were listening and reacting, each in their different way. You could imagine the staging being more developed, more choreographed, but this had a nicely casual quality with reactions varying from still and solemn attention to lively delight. Though the instrumentalists were placed behind the singers, they were not secondary and we could see and hear their participation.

In terms of sound quality, the results had an engaging liveliness even in the most sober passages. And, with the large ensembles having a feeling of bounce and lightness (though not without drama) which is often lacking, and the continuo accompanied solos created a real chamber music feel.

The concert was being recorded live for future release, and the evening began with a plea from Jonathan Sells for the audience to be restrained in its noise-making. That sense of restraint seemed to carry over to the performances and the first two items, Schelle's Machet die Tore weit and Kuhnau's Magnificat seemed to be a little more careful than usual, without the element of vibrant risk-taking. But somehow, after the interval, the ensemble recovered its collective confidence and the Bach had a wonderful vividness, energy and focus, with the group's enjoyment being palpable.

Not that much music by Schelle or Kuhnau survives. Though both wrote plenty for St Thomas's Church in Leipzig, the ravages of time has reduced what has come down to us and Kuhnau's Magnificat is his largest surviving piece. Schelle's Machet die Tore weit sets a German text for the first Sunday in Advent. The music is written for an orchestra including trumpets and drums, but without oboes, so all very festal. The piece opened with a sort of call and response between solos and tutti, and was followed by a series of solos (Lucy Page, Michal Czerniawski, Thomas Herford, Jonathan Sells) with continuo accompaniment punctuated with orchestral ritornelli. It is a lovely piece, which makes the most of the large orchestra whilst keeping the vocal writing more intimate in the solos. Overall the performance was beautifully crafted and whilst the solo sections seemed a little careful, the tutti moments really took off.

Kuhnau's Magnificat was clearly an influence of Bach's, both use the same text with the Christmas interpolations (though Bach places them in different places), and both use a large orchestra and bring a wide palate of colours to the setting of the text. The Kuhnau started with an engagingly perky ritornello and when the voices joined they were joyful yet serious, and the sections which followed were all differently characterised. Michal Czerniawski was finely expressive in 'Quia respexit', whilst Thomas Herford contributed a thoughtful 'Et misericordia' and Peter Davoren was the soloist in the graceful 'Suscepit Israel'. Often Kuhanu uses short phrases on from the soloists interleaving with tutti statements, and the group's small-scale, communal approach made much sense of this so that there were lots of engaging textures. And overall there was the sense of the words, as if the singers really meant it.

Bach's Magnificat positively explode onto the platform with an opening section full of life and bounce, in a way which made the performances in the first half seem a little sedate, with singers and instrumentalists joyfully interacting. Amy Carson was stylish in 'Et exsultavit' with a fine projection of the words, and the following'Von Himmel hoch' choral had a lovely sense of contrast between the smooth line of the soprano's chorale and the vivid detail of the other parts. Leo Duarte's mellow oboe partnered Zoë Brookshaw's lovely clear account of 'Quia respexit' with a fine contrast between instrument and voice. The tempo here was interestingly steady, and throughout the piece I noticed a willingness to experiment with tempos and not simply jog along at the usual pace. Inga Maria Klaucke's pawky bassoon complemented Alex Ashworth's focussed bass in 'Quia fecit' with the tempo making the music remarkably direct. The second interpolation, 'Freut euch' was delightfully light, whilst 'Et misericordia' had a lovely lilt to it with Michal Czerniawski and Peter Davoren blending beautifully. In the chorus 'Fecit potentiam' rather than seeming a trial, the singers seemed to convey real enjoyement in the fast passagework.

Thomas Herford was light but fierce in 'Deposuit', taken at quite a tempo, whilst Kate Symonds-Joy's lovely focused, even tone was partnered by a pair of delightful recorders (played by the oboists Leo Duarte and  Inga Maria Klaucke) and some superbly characterful continuo playing from cellist George Ross.  And Jonathan Sells and Zoë Brookshaw took real delight in the lively runny bits in 'Virga Jess', all with an engaging lilt (and fine continuo from George Ross again). 'Suscepit Israel' was done as a trio, Zoë Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Michal Czerniawski, which lent the piece a striking texture. The concluding trio of ensemble sections had a seriousness to them, but with such an engaging bounce to the rhythm that the enjoyment was palpable.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley (★★★½) - CD review
  • Intimate delight: 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo - (★★★★½)  concert review
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • A 20th century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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