Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Purcell Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

21 March 2011

Alongside its solo career, the Purcell Quartet has worked with many leading singers in programmes of German Baroque repertoire, producing a series of CDs dedicated to the music of J.S. Bach and Buxtehude and many excellent individual discs.

This concert reunited several of the longest-serving of those singers with the Quartet in a neatly near-symmetrical programme exploring the music of the north-German Baroque in the 17th century. As Richard Boothby pointed out in his programme note, while all the composers featured have, at some point, been pointed to as the source of Bachs inspiration, in truth, it isnt quite as simple as that.

The story of Bachs 500-kilometre journey by foot to hear Dieterich Buxtehude play the organ has passed into legend, and two of that composers Op. 2 trio sonatas provided the opportunity for the instrumentalists to shine in an otherwise all-vocal programme. However, Catherine Mackintoshs violin playing in sonata No. 5 in A major was unsteady in tuning and timing, though lively and adorned with gesture; in contrast, Catherine Weiss, though much more accurate and tidy, seemed reluctant to shake off the shackles of playing second fiddle (literally) to Mackintosh in the rest of the concert.

I think my location in the hall was to blame for my difficulties in making out Richard Boothbys contribution on the gamba in both pieces, although I felt that his cause wasnt helped by some rather bottom-heavy choices of registration from Robert Woolley on the organ. Neither sonata showed the Quartet at anywhere near the excellent standard which is its hallmark, which was both unexpected and disappointing.

Next up in the Who influenced J.S. Bach? identity parade was his cousin Johann Christoph, and Michael Chance stepped forward with a masterly performance in the latters famous, Ach, da ich Wassers genug htte, galvanising the ensemble and drawing the audience with a vast palette of subtle vocal colours.

Peter Harvey is, for me, todays pre-eminent interpreter of this repertoire, and he made the case for Matthias Weckmann, his delivery authoritative yet warm in Kommet her zu mir alle, and vaulting all the vocal obstacles put in his path. Weckmanns Zion spricht brought Chance and Harvey together with tenor Julian Podger, and the infinitely fine scale of vibrato and presence in their voices, switching in an instant from a perfect blend to one prominent voice being supported by its partners and back again, brought the close, intricate writing and interplay of this lament to life.

Two items from Heinrich Schtzs Symphoniae Sacrae II provided solo vehicles for the remaining members of the vocal quartet. The strident setting of Psalm 150, Lobet den Herrn, was ideal for Podgers voice, and here the Purcell Quartet responded vividly to the array of instruments mentioned in the text.

Unfortunately, Emma Kirkby seemed rather hampered by the low tessitura of Herr, unser Herrscher, struggling to find fluidity in the coloratura or stability in the higher notes, but somewhat made up for this in her sparkling declamation of the wonderfully descriptive details of the text.

J.C. Bach had the final word; his wedding piece Meine Freundin, du bist schn bringing all the performers together on stage with a rather curious text that starts off with language from the Song of Solomon, as a conversation between two lovers before subtly metamorphosing into a drinking song. Kirkby and Harvey seemed unsure what to make of this dichotomy, looking not quite at ease with the attempted semi-staging during their extended opening dialogue indeed, it took the appearance of Chance and Podger, as two interlocutors with Kirkbys character, to give the piece dramatic and musical impulse onwards to the final, convivial stanzas. Here, for the only time in the evening, absolutely everyone looked and sounded comfortable and confident and as if they were having fun a disappointingly low return from what was, on paper, a fantastic concert programme.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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