Monday 30 May 2022

Enjoyment and discovery: Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players in Bach's Ascension Oratorio

Feast of the Ascension
Bach: Mass in A, Ascension Oratorio; Mary Bevan, Tim Mead, Thomas Walker, Malachy Frame, Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 27 May 2022 (★★★★★)

A wonderful evening of rarer Bach for the Feast of the Ascension, brimming with imagination and in terrific performances

For their last Wigmore Hall concert this season (27 May 2022), Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players performed a programme of Bach suitable for the season, the Feast of the Ascension (which was on 26 May 2022). With soprano Mary Bevan, counter-tenor Tim Mead, tenor Thomas Walker, and baritone Malachy Frame with an instrumental ensemble of 18 led by violinist Catherine Martin, they performed Bach's Sinfonia from Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir BWV 29, Mass in A BWV 234, Sinfonia in D BWV 1045 and Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen BWV 11 'Ascension Oratorio'.

Whilst the music technically dates from the 1730s and 1740s, one of the fascinating things about the pieces was the way Bach had recycled music from earlier (often occasional) works, and in the case of the counter-tenor aria from the Ascension Oratorio would reuse them again as he based the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B minor on the aria.

The Sinfonia from BWV 29 featured three trumpets to create a joyful sound, but the piece is based on a solo violin piece, now transferred to organ this meant that running through it was this demented organ line to striking effect. Though I did rather wish we had had an organ with a bit more poke than the chamber organ on the Wigmore Hall stage.

Bach's Mass in A is one of his so-called Lutheran masses, works that set just the Kyrie and Gloria in Latin, because these were the only two movements that Luther allowed to be used on special occasions. In contrast to the Sinfonia, this was a work full of delicate and interesting timbres. The Kyrie began with graceful flutes and the four voices in chorale-like music but enlivened by more elaborate moments in the vocal lines. The rather striking Christe had the voices in a slow fugue over sustained strings to haunting effect, whilst the final Kyrie was in complete contrast a fugue that really danced.

The Gloria began with briskly vivid music which alternated with slower, more expressive material by turns counter-tenor, tenor and baritone solos, then a slow ensemble (Bach seems to have diddled his boy treble out of his solo here). Malachy Frame gave a fine account of the Domine Deus, a continuo aria with quite an elaborate vocal line, then for Qui Tollis the treble finally got his solo (here, of course, Mary Bevan). She gave us a poised, slowly unfolding vocal line with two intertwining flutes. Quite fabulous with the sense of Bevan in a halo of flute, floated yet intense. Tim Mead was nicely poised in the busy vocal line in his solo for Quonian, which came over as a robust dance with an equally busy violin part.  We ended with Cum sancto spiritu, a chorale sung by the four soloists against a wonderfully vivid orchestral texture.

After the interval, the trumpets returned and were joined by oboes for the Sinfonia in D BWV 1045, another vivid piece with a virtuoso solo violin. 

For the Ascension Oratorio the stage was full as the instrumental ensemble included flutes, oboes and trumpets. The Evangelist was tenor Thomas Walker, singing vividly with a fine array of colours in the voice, at one point he was joined in the recitative by baritone Malachy Frame when the words talked about two men in white talking to the Apostles. And when the words of the recitative recall the alto aria, Bach brings back the alto, here Tim Mead. 

We opened with a perky chorus generically praising God, with vigorous vocal contributions, a movement actually written three years earlier for the reconsecration of the Leipzig Thomasschule. The expressively chromatic first aria was sung with lovely phrasing and fine tone by Tim Mead, and the second aria featured soprano Mary Bevan with an ensemble of flutes, oboes, violins and violas. Thus, no bass instruments to fabulous effect, and it really felt like chamber music with Bevan being primus inter pares rather than a dominating soloist. Between these two arias came the dark and sober choral, and the work ended with a rather jolly instrumental contribution featuring the trumpets with chorale-like punctuations from the singers.

What amazed was the sheer fertility of Bach's imagination, all this fine music which is so very rarely performed. The very full platform gave us a sense, perhaps, of the way Bach's musicians might have been crammed in the organ loft, and here there was a great sense of enjoyment and discovery, revealing this music in finely engaging and engaged performances.

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