Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bach Cantatas @ Wigmore Hall, London

20 May 2007

What better counterpoint to my current literature of choice, Richard Dawkins’ superb denunciation of religion The God Delusion, than an evening of Bach cantatas?

But, though this concert sped by briskly and was frequently absorbing, I left the hall dry-eyed.

Nothing specific was missing, but rather there was an accumulation of small distractions that conspired to prevent complete absorption in the glorious music.

The big number here was BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekmmernis, a major cantata for its potent depiction of religious doubt leading to transcendent faith though music of the highest clarity, drama and (to deliberately use a controversial term) taste. The augmented Purcell Quartet‘s performance of the Sinfonia was extraordinary. As the cello dropped step-by-step beneath the chilly string texture to be answered by the most evocatively phrased oboe line, not only the ear but also the body seemed to be transported. It was that good.

But all was not rosy elsewhere. Tenor Charles Daniels was not at his best all evening, and it was not just his naughty schoolboy stance on the platform that distracted. Rather his voice, while effectively used, lacked a firm line and often struggled to nail the pitch. His two arias in this cantata’s first half were uneven in timbre, but he excelled in the dividing recitative, conveying the anguish of the text with great expression.

And while alto Michael Chance‘s warm tone contributed superbly to the ensembles (some find a hoot in his voice, but not me), he could seem a tad dry in the solo passages. The highest and lowest voices of Emma Kirkby and Peter Harvey were both secure and firmly used, and the former managed, in the final chorus of BWV 21 Part One, to float the most opulent and perfectly placed tones on the line Harre auf Gott. This cantata was the most effective of the evening and the aforementioned Sinfonia was no isolated highlight. I loved the quickfire bass-tenor duet in Part Two (a male counterpoint of that uproarious soprano-alto duet in BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele) and the arrival of timpani and trumpets in the joyful final chorus was breathtaking. Amen, Alleluja indeed.

BWV 172, Erschallet, ihr Lieder, and BWV 182, Himmelsknig, sei willkommen were both fine but lacking spark. The former boasted some fine trumpet accompaniment in the bass aria and a gorgeous soprano-alto duet accompanied by flitting cello lines and shapely oboe decorations, the latter some admirable counterpoint and coloratura in the concluding choruses. But in this first half of the concert, three of the four singers struggled with intonation, and Michael Chance’s aria in BWV 182 was awkwardly breathed. The flute playing here was, however, admirably clean. So for the most part this was an involving concert, but one that could not be praised without reservation.

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