This Wigmore Hall concert was billed as Bach’s Cantatas for Counter-Tenor, with the celebrated early music interpreter Robin Blaze performing the solo role. In reality, however, the keyboardist and director of the accompanying Retrospect Ensemble, Matthew Halls, shared much of the limelight. And we got two virtuoso performers for the price of one.
Bach’s cantatas for counter-tenor, or alto, written in the late 1720s offer the organist a unique opportunity: it is thought that the ensemble Bach had at his disposal was smaller than usual so he elevated the organist from a continuo role to full-blown ensemble part to add texture and flourish. In the first cantata of the evening, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust BWV170, the quality of Blaze’s counter-tenor was immediately apparent: light and pure, without a trace of the hootyness that can shade other voices in this range. If he sounded a little underpowered in the middle register this was countered by a glorious blooming effect as he swept up the stave.
The second cantata, Geist und Seele wird verwirret BWV35, is less frequently performed but is perhaps almost even more gripping than BWV170. Again, the organ is prominent, and Halls’ deep understanding and enjoyment of this music was demonstrated with a thrillingly confident account, speckled with trills and ornaments. This particular work begins with a Concerto and is interrupted by a frantic Sinfonia, in which the organ really plays the solo part. Blaze impressed in the arias and recitatives; although there was conspicuous breath during a line of the phenomenally difficult “Gott hat alles wohlgemacht” aria his interpretation was intensely moving.
Interspersed between the two chosen cantatas were with two organ pieces. The first, as Halls explained from the stage, was a reconstruction of an fragment of Bach’s Concerto for Organ (or harpsichord) in D minor BWV1059 using movements extracted from cantatas BWV49 and BWV169 that both score for organ obbligato. It was certainly interesting to hear “unheard” Bach but one had a sense of something lacking. The second was the Sinfonia from Cantata Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats BWV42.
The Retrospect Ensemble, launched in May, are mid-way through their 2009/2010 series at the Wigmore Hall. Based on their engaging and accomplished performance here, I would urge you to catch their performance of Purcell’s Fairy Queen next month.
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