JS Bach’s Magnificat in D ranks as one of the master’s greatest choral works. Likewise, the Choir of New College, Oxford has for decades enjoyed a reputation as one of this country’s best choral outfits. What a pity, then, that this concert at Kings Place sounded so disappointing.
Part of the problem may have been the acoustics in Hall One. The massed voices in the full chorus movements couldn’t quite reach upwards and outwards, and the large number of instrumentalists on the hall’s small stage looked as well as sounded cramped. The main deficiency, though, lay in the particular qualities of the New College singers, who sounded too much like an English cathedral (or Oxbridge college) choir – an impression deepened by their red robes and lace ruffs. The complex lines of the opening chorus became muddled and were occasionally drowned out by players from Oxford Philomusica, with modern flutes and valved trumpets (there was nothing ‘authentic’ about this performance) providing a shrill overlay.
Director Edward Higginbottom drew his soloists from among the choir’s ranks. In the case of the two young trebles (unnamed in the programme) chosen to sing the second and third arias, this did not work well. Slight of voice and tense, they did not invest the texts with the passion and joy they required. The adult soloists coped better, with a satisfying duet for alto and tenor, complete with some sympathetic orchestral support.
The choir’s and orchestra’s rendition of Bach’s early cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 worked a little better, although Higginbottom’s decision to allot the arias for solo soprano, alto, tenor and bass to whole sections of the choir seemed perverse and, again, sounded odd. At least Oxford Philomusica – a professional orchestra for both town and gown – exhibited some fine playing, particularly in the bassoon figuration in the terzetto aria, and the fluttering strings in the final chorus.
Ironically, the highlight of the concert proved to be the section in which the choir did not appear at all. Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani gave a spirited performance of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 4 in A. Highly proficient technically, Esfahani also showed individual flashes of inventiveness and humour at the keyboard. He blithely followed his own track, sometimes leaving Higginbottom and the accompanying players struggling to catch up. But with playing of such brilliance and a couple of generous encores of music by Scarlatti and Rameau, there was little cause for complaint.
Further details of Kings Place concerts can be found at kingsplace.co.uk