Classical and Opera Reviews

Retrospect Ensemble @ Wigmore Hall, London

31 December 2011


The Retrospect Ensemble brought its own end-of-year fireworks to a vigorous performance of pieces by JS Bach.

Formed only two-and-a-half years ago, the Ensemble gathers a core group who bring technical precision to a range of Baroque music. Having said that, their delivery of Bachs Christmas Day cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens was a little unsteady at first. The opening section is a brash, triumphal orchestral prelude, which seemed to catch the players off-guard. After a wobbly start, though, they were practically faultless in the rest of their delivery. The playing of trumpeter Neil Brough was particularly fine.

The choral passages were less well-conceived. Partly due to lack of space on the Wigmore stage, and partly because of a stated wish to get back to Baroque basics, director and keyboard player Matthew Halls opted to allocate choral parts to the five singers two sopranos, counter tenor, tenor and bass. The resulting thinning of texture did not work well. Fortunately, the cantata only includes extended choral writing in the opening and closing (chorale) movements, so in between, the audience was treated to some fine solo singing, noticeably from countertenor Christopher Ainslie.

In Bachs Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 Matthew Hall and his ensemble equalised the balance with the string, flute and continuo parts, and In doing so exposed the finer elements of the score, particularly in the second movement, with its gentle duet for flute and violin. For his part, Hall had no problem tackling the first movement cadenza, although his approach was a touch cautious.

The only downside to Retrospects concluding performance of Bachs Magnificat was its tiny chorus. Unlike the cantata, the Magnificat needs a full-voiced chorus to carry off the joyous and dramatic elements in the text. With just five singers (three of them in the upper registers), the choral movements were starved of volume and almost engulfed by the orchestra which included three trumpets and timpani. At least the singers shone in their solo passages, with soprano Joanne Lunn resplendent, and Christopher Ainslie again turning heads with his crisp and supple delivery.

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



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