All Bach, all the time at the Wiggy.
Programming Bach’s Sinfonia from BWV29, as an opener for an all Bach concert is a great idea, but it involves no small amount of risk. Adapted from the composer’s E major partita for solo violin, most of the violin’s busy melodic drive in this fanfare of a piece is given to the obbligato organ part – so it requires an instrument with heft, and a virtuoso player. The piece is also scored for three trumpets, and the baroque trumpet is notoriously chancy when it comes to ‘unwarmed’ short notes. Sadly, the performance by Gabrieli Consort & Players (under their director Paul McCreesh) on Friday was somewhat bedevilled by several of these factors: while William Whitehead’s organ playing virtuosity is undeniable, the tiny modern chamber instrument at the back of the stage was frequently lost in the large ensemble, and a malevolent ‘god of brass’ had clearly cursed the trumpets with cracked notes for their chordal punctuations.
Circumstances had changed by the time the ensemble opened the second half of the concert with another Sinfonia (BWV1045), and this was given a much more balanced and settled performance, albeit that there was a slight feeling of disagreement between strings and wind around which temperament they were using.
The main body of the concert, though, was taken up by two of Bach’s less frequently performed choral works, given the kind of top-notch attention that one expects from the Gabrielis. Bach’s ‘Ascension Oratorio’ (really a pimped-up cantata: Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen) was well chosen for the season, and the focus of their fourth ‘Bach Feast Day’ in the series, but the real rare joy was BWV234, his Mass in A, one of four Latin masses composed for the Lutheran rite (setting just the Kyrie and Gloria as choral extravagances).
“…the tiny modern chamber instrument at the back of the stage was frequently lost in the large ensemble…”
The ‘choir’ consisted of just four voices – Mary Bevan (soprano); Tim Mead (countertenor); Thomas Walker (tenor); Malachy Frame (bass). There was no need for more, as, standing in front of the players, they were never swamped by the instruments, producing not only a robust yet controlled ensemble sound, but one whose blend was perfect – down not only to skill, but to a clever choice of voices, each of which has a similar quality of richness and intensity. This gorgeous blend was amply demonstrated in the ‘Christe’ section of the BWV234’s Kyrie: harmonically, it felt like an accompanied recitative – a slow turn of simple chordal underlay – but, as the voices piled onto each other, knitting stately counterpoint, it became a magisterial fugue, seemingly on one registration. Equally – but contrastingly – demonstrative of the coherence of the voices were the alternating quick/slow passages batted between the soloists in ‘Laudamus te’. Frame’s Domine Deus demonstrated his covered but generously incisive tone (although the violin obbligato seemed slightly out of phase on the tuning); Bevan’s Qui tollis (accompanied by a slow, upper string pulse and twirling flutes) was full of sweet creaminess; and Mead’s Quoniam was both fervent and agile.
The Ascension Oratorio, too, was full of loveliness. The band (with a generous wind section of two flutes, two oboes and three trumpets as well as timps) were attentive to McCreesh’s direction, giving us nicely controlled texture, tempo and dynamic. Mead’s ‘Ach, bleibe doch’ was a tour de force, conveying with potency, tenderness, and complete uniformity throughout his range, the disciples’ loss of their Lord. The unexpected tenor/bass duet for the two angels coming out of the recitative was magical (again, the blend between Walker and Frame shining through), and further enchantment came from Bevan’s ‘Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke’ – her voice intertwining with oboe and flute, with just unison violins and viola providing a bass line.