Bach Unwrapped, Blaze, La Nuova Musica, Bates, Kings Place | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Bach Unwrapped, Blaze, La Nuova Musica, Bates, Kings Place
Not quite enough undiluted Johann Sebastian in a problematic evening
Faced with yet another world premiere from his friends in the Borodin Quartet, Shostakovich severely asked them whether they’d yet played all of Haydn’s quartets (they hadn’t). As a listener, I feel the same about Bach’s cantatas. Whether or not a lifetime will be enough to catch each of these varied and ever surprising little miracles in the flesh, Kings Place’s Bach Unwrapped series includes a chance to hear nearly 30 of the 200 from seven different ensembles in less than a year. Unfortunately it looks as if I drew the short straw at the end of the first four concerts.
There was only one problem about the programming, which sacrificed undiminished genius with curiosity value in the second half. Two more cantatas might have stood in for Bach’s adaptation of Pergolesi’s famous Stabat Mater as Psalm 51 – a pretty piece, of course, and not without its own rhythmic novelties, but still quite a descent from JSB’s personal level. In fact it received the most unblemished performance, spirited countertenor Robin Blaze (pictured below by Dorothea Heise) blending in musicianly harmony with clean, bright soprano Helen-Jane Howells. It was probably not her fault if Luther's translation didn’t seem to sit too meaningfully on top of the original Latin-set lines.
Here, too, the strings of La Nuova Musica danced along guttily. But I wonder if they would have done so just the same on their own without the over-large gestures of director David Bates. Surely, for example, players’ entries don’t need to be semaphored with urgent outstretched arm; they know when to come in. Experience should teach this young conductor that less is more, that what you see from him is what you ought to hear. The more energetic passages were all the better for lively accenting, but the slow movement of the Concerto in C minor adapted for violin and oboe should coast over the barlines and never feel like a slow waltz rhythm in every bar, and the most wonderful of the arias in the Cantata Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, “Stirb in mir”, unearthly-strange as its most outlandish progressions sounded, needed more long-term winsomeness, too.
Not that Blaze didn’t phrase eloquently and with his usual impeccable musical instincts, even if this was still a reminder that time marches on and robs most countertenors of some of their short-lived bloom all too soon. Stage management was a real obstacle here, though: from stalls left our soloist, surely set too far back, was completely obscured by Bates standing at the harpsichord. Oboist Joel Raymond needed to be further forward, too, in the concerto: the period instrument can sound muddy in its middle range, unnaturally loud at either end, and Raymond seemed to be having some trouble with rounding off even some of the shorter lines.
Other imprecisions from chamber organ in the cantata and, very briefly, the whole ensemble in the Overture to the First Orchestral Suite also detracted from the kind of perfection we perhaps too readily take for granted in groups such as this. Not entirely, then, the kind of New Year wake-up call we expect from Bach; no "asperging with hyssop", as the translation of Psalm 51 in the programme had it, on this occasion.
- Next concert in the Bach Unwrapped series is on Friday 4 January, with Christopher Richter playing cello works
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