On Friday evening The Academy of Ancient Music and the BBC singers, conducted by David Hill, filled the Proms’ short quota of choral works by the composer. The BBC Singers, as usual, sang all of the notes perfectly, in the right order, and with a respectable degree of phrasing and musicality, and The Academy of Ancient Music provided an appropriate baroque sound, but with none of the expected spark. The Albert Hall itself didn’t help with the sound – everything sounded slightly dull, as though it had been filtered through several layers of red plush. All in all, there was little to find very wrong with the performance – it was just not inspiring. On paper, instinctively, you knew what it would sound like, and it failed, sadly, to surprise.
It was interesting to hear one of Bach’s Lutheran Masses (in this case, the G-minor); they are rarely performed, as they are very much liturgical works, stitched together out of re-tasked sections of cantatas. They are, nonetheless, works of quiet genius, and in Friday night’s performance the three soloists – Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone), lived up to expectations: Davies provided some beautifully clear high notes that filled the Albert Hall more than any other notes produced on the platform; Nicky Spence has a tone that works well with Bach – light yet agile, and Roderick Williams has a clear incisive voice with a pleasingly firm bass tone. As mentioned above, the choral singing reached a high standard but it was not inspiring (with a little too much vibrato in the soprano line, and some slight lack of homogeneity in the individual parts); the orchestra generally played well, but there were some occasional intonation wobbles in the woodwind.
The second Brandenburg concerto followed, played by a sub-section of the orchestra led from the violin. This was a more agile sound (as one would expect from a smaller, conductorless group), but it felt fractured – it wasn’t either pitch or tempo, but a lack of blend – again, perhaps the Albert Hall’s acoustics were responsible for this.
Bach’s great D-major Magnificat was the third item on the programme. As with the other works, it was given a competent performance, but the dazzle with which it can sweep audiences away was missing, particularly during the successive choral Gloria entries of the final movement, which should culminate in an overwhelming moment of trumpets and glory, but which failed to deliver. The three other soloists were joined by the sopranos Sophie Bevan and Rebecca Evans for very brief appearances. Both have beautiful voices – Evans has an incisive yet creamy tone, Bevan’s is fuller and wider – but they seemed mismatched with the work, and in Suscepit Israel managed to slightly swamp Iestyn Davies’ voice. Davies’ Esurientes solo was perhaps the most enjoyable moment of the concert, particularly for the way in which he stretched note values with an intelligent understanding of the style required.