This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s opening salvo leading to the Reformation. Later this month, three Proms over a whole day will be devoted to this tectonic shift in religion, but Wednesday’s late-night Prom gave us the first tremor in a programme of Protestant music by Schütz and Bach.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner turned 74 this year, and, like a good claret, he continues to improve with age, and to demonstrate that he absolutely inhabits the multi-faceted baroque idiom. The drive and business-like approach to the music is still there, but there are fresh takes on details – subtle uses of dynamic to highlight word texture; tiny changes in tempo to accent a decoration; perfectly considered choices for solo voices to complement instrumentation – and all of these were present on Wednesday, such that a daunting unbroken 80-minute programme seemed to pass in no time.
Heinrich Schütz’s settings of three psalm texts (Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen; Danket dem Herren, denn er ist freundlich), probably from the Reformation centenary celebrations in 1617, provided a sparkling appetizer. Schütz’s early-baroque style is simpler than that of Bach, but his use of grand polychoral effects and instrumental texture to highlight the text (most noticeably in Danket dem Herren, where the refrain ‘denn seine Güte währet ewiglich’ after every line was proclaimed by the larger choir of instruments and voices) provides drama and excitement. Gardiner’s usual crew of the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir were on fine form, the voices blending well – in spite of the problems always presented to early-music groups by the Albert Hall – with the natural trumpets glittering over the fruity bass underlay of the sackbuts. Text was to the fore through the adroitly controlled use of dynamic, with some enjoyable syllabic play (such as the emphasis of the overlapping scratchy consonants in ‘Der Kön’g schafft Recht …’). Perhaps the only cavil was that Gardiner might have taken more risks with separation of the choirs; Schütz’s Venetian style was obvious in the passing of sections of the psalms between different groups, but using more of the space would have augmented the grandeur (and allowed those sat at an angle to the stage to have at least some front-on sound).
Two of J S Bach’s most obviously Reformation cantatas (each quoting Lutheran hymn tunes) served as the main course: Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Again, the choir and instrumentalists turned in first-rate performances, making Bach’s complex counterpoint sound effortless, and providing solid weight for the homophonic chorale sections. Particular mention must be made of the horns, whose busy chugging at the opening of the first cantata imbued it with that special brassy excitement in which Bach excels; further delight was provided by the sackbut raspingly bolstering the basso continuo in some of the movements of Ein feste Burg, and the elegantly poised cello performance in the fourth movement of the same cantata.
The soloists came from the choir, and were well-chosen, all of them providing an on-the-button Bach sound: colour and richness but with the softness of a stopped organ pipe. Reginald Mobley’s alto solos were never too shrill; Hugo Hymas’ tenor was a perfect ‘Evangelist’ voice; Robert Davies’ bass had just the right amount of heft, but blended well with each of the different soprano voices – Amy Carson and Miriam Allan (whose ability to match the timbre of the oboe in ‘Komm in mein Herzenhaus’ was uncanny). In all, a joyful affirmation that the Catholic Church didn’t retain a monopoly on the best church music!.