It is always a delight to hear J S Bach’s brilliant trumpets-and-glory Magnificat, and especially so in its original 1723 E-flat version from Bach’s first Christmas at Leipzig, containing the four seasonal interpolations – little Bach gems scattered throughout the main movements of the canticle. The work – along with motets from Gabrieli, de Rore and Calvisius, a couple of chorales and the Cantata Uns ist ein Kind geboren, originally thought to be by Bach, but now attributed to Johann Kuhnau – made up ‘Bach’s Christmas Vespers’, given by Oxford Baroque under Jeremy Summerly on Saturday evening.
The ensemble consisted of ten singers (who divided the solos among them) and seventeen instruments, and made a good solid sound – the vocal bass line, in particular provided just the right degree of incisive anchoring. Indeed, both the basses had some star solo moments, Andrew Tipple’s rendering of Dein Geburtstag ist erschienen in the Cantata was full of rounded sonorities, and Sam Carl’s crisper voice worked well for Quia fecit in the Magnificat. Other soloists too had their time in the sun: the four sopranos all demonstrated contrasting tonal qualities (Esther Brazil’s sweet, bell-like tone for Et exultavit was especially fine), and the two tenors David Lee and William Blake gave good accounts of Jesu, dir sei dank in the Cantata and in the Magnificat duet Et misericordia, although Deposuit potentes needed, perhaps, an edgier voice. The alto Hannah Cooke’s voice was beautifully mellow in her movements, although Jonathan Darbourne’s Esurientes needed the excellent recorder playing for the piece to have its usual sparkle. Perhaps the only unfortunate solo movement was Quia respexit, in which the over-harsh oboe and Rebecca Lea’s mellow tone were mismatched.
The sound in the choral items was full and well-blended – particularly enjoyable was Giovanni Gabrieli’s Hodie Christus natus est. The full-movements of the Cantata and the Magnificat came across well, and delivered the required punch when necessary – especially Fecit potentia (although even more trumpet in the coda section would have added icing to the cake).
The notes and technique, then, were all in the right place, and that’s why the performance was good. But, alas, it failed to deliver that extra frisson of character that is now expected of small baroque ensembles, and that would have made it outstanding. Everyone is familiar with the bright students at school; they turn in effortless excellence without trying much, and this is how the evening felt. It was a fine collection of voices – well-trained, and with a degree of experience. But the whole performance could have been so much better if that first-rate foundation had been built upon, by the singers getting to know the music better, with particular regard to its historical and cultural context: in short, it felt under-prepared. The instrumentalists were generally fine, but then, learning to play a baroque violin, or understanding the mysteries of continuo, mean that these period nuances are always brought to any party. The vocal work, though, had too much of a default ‘Oxbridge-chapel’ feel about it. The Latin was off-the-shelf Italianate (presumably because that’s how college-chapel Latin is always sung), and that extra ‘chiff’ of Teutonic consonants was missing (and how could that go unnoticed in a concert where Latin and German texts were sung side by side?). Communication between singers and audience, too, was sadly missing. Heads were in copies, and eyes – even those of the soloists – rarely glimpsed anywhere other than at the music or the conductor. In a liturgical or radio performance this would have worked, but in a concert designed to engage a live audience, it missed a target.