A ‘lost’ Baroque composer is explored in London’s finest recital venue.
J S Bach’s shadow looms long and wide over German Baroque music, and, with the possible exception of Telemann, other composers of the era and area tend to get forgotten. There are, of course, good reasons for this – Bach’s output is generally accepted to be outstanding in its quantity, complexity, innovativeness and consistency – but this is no reason to totally dismiss Bach’s contemporaries, as they too have something to offer, beyond a simple reminder of the context in which Bach was working. So, the likes of Johann Adolf Hasse, Carl Heinrich Graun and Christoph Graupner (who, after Telemann, was the second choice for the Cantor post at Thomaskirche Leipzig that the third-place Bach ultimately ended up occupying) are worth exploring. On Saturday evening at Wigmore Hall, the Baroque collective Solomon’s Knot celebrated both the season and the 300th anniversary of the composer’s death with a presentation of some of the ‘Christmas’ cantatas of another ‘lost’ German Baroque composer Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722), Bach’s predecessor as Cantor at the Thomaskirche.
Kuhnau went on record as being opposed to the operatic showiness of the ‘Italian’ style, but some of these cantatas suggest that he wasn’t being entirely honest with himself, as four of them (O heilige Zeit, Das Alte ist vergangen and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, Frohlocket ihr Völker) showed distinct leanings towards the ornate, particularly the latter.
The evening opened, though, with the solidly Lutheran Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Here, although there were variations in instrumentation (trumpets and timps made appearances), as well as tempi and style, and the piece was divided into movements, the whole was a seamless presentation of the text, with solos, recits and choral movements coming and going on a kind of Baroque conveyor belt. Solomon’s Knot were on excellent form, and, directed with minimal gestures by Jonathan Selis (who also sang bass), injected interest into the whole with some subtle and well-considered variations in dynamic and texture. Of particular note were Selis’ own solo (‘Mit Drommeten und Posaunen’) – full of martial semiquaver runs – and the charming little duet between tenors and trumpets in the final ‘Halleluja’.
Solomon’s Knot celebrated… some of the ‘Christmas’ cantatas of another ‘lost’ German Baroque composer Johann Kuhnau…
The following three cantatas (O heilige Zeit, Das Alte… and Wie schön leuchtet…) felt slightly less corseted, and gave opportunities for some decoration – although there was still a feeling of ‘no dallying’ about them. Stand out moments were the tenor and bass duet (James Way and Jonathan Selis) – full of subtle light and shade – and the alto (Kate Symonds-Joy) Arioso ‘Haltet mich…’ – containing some precisely handled runs; in O heilige Zeit; the lilting soprano aria (‘In Christi…’) and dark tones of Alex Ashworth for the bass ‘So oft’ in Das Alte…; the serenely pastoral aria (‘O Wunderson…’) for tenor (Thomas Herford), two flutes, and theorbo/bassoon continuo in Wie schön leuchtet. The presence of two horns for the choral movements of this latter cantata, though, tended to swamp the flutes in the ripieno passages, and one wonders whether Kuhnau might have rather regretted the combination.
For Frohlocket ihr Völker, written towards the end of his life, Kuhnau had clearly completely thrown all of his earlier attitudes out of the window, as this is full on showy. Both of the arias (for tenor and alto respectively) are in the operatic style, with da capo sections and plenty of bars given over to obbligato instruments, and one can certainly see from this that Bach would have felt no barriers to deploying the same techniques when he took over the post. The ensemble tucked into all this with professional glee: the choral movements were full of trumpets, glory and crisp counterpoint – and some magnificently resounding upper note trills. The two arias from tenor James Way and alto James Hall, were meltingly decorated – Hall’s delicate, almost mezzo-soprano tone producing some delightful changes of dynamic on held notes in ‘Wilkommen, mein Leben’.