Bach as a twenty-something

Roderic Dunnett’s review of our Birmingham concert, March 2004, was published in the Church Times.

Although many of his finest cantatas, like the Passions, date from Bach’s quarter-century at St Thomas’s, Leipzig (1723–50), and his organ music mostly predates the move, this rule is not absolute. To make the point, the Bach Players, now in their ninth year, brought together three early cantatas for their Lenten concert at Birmingham University’s Barber Institute. So early were these cantatas that the last heard, Bach’s Easter Cantata ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, dates from the close of his Arnstadt period (1703–07), when Bach was 22 and still auditioning for his brief stay in Mühlhausen. ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, for alto and strings, has a special association: it is one of Alfred Deller’s loveliest solo recordings, and has subsequently been recorded by both Andreas Scholl and James Bowman. To rival such an impeccable trio of chaps might have seemed an uphill struggle for the Bach Players’ alto, Hilary Summers; but rival them she did. Georg Christian Lehms’s text ‘Stand firm against sin or its poison will grab you: vile transgression, glittering gold on the outside, is a whitewashed grave, like the apples of Sodom’ takes penitential grimness to a new plane. Miss Summers delivering it puts one in mind of a strict prep-school matron; but her tones are exquisite.

‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’, a Palm Sunday cantata from 1714, has four soloists (five, if we include Catherine Latham’s terrific Baroque recorder-playing). It is framed by two glorious welcome choruses, which were sung with a subtle feel for rubato. The tricky tenor aria ‘Jesus, lass durch Wohl und Weh’, sung by Charles Daniels with some magical Baroque cello work from Alison McGillivray, positively spangled. Despite a smidgeon of rocky string tuning in Peter Harvey’s noble bass aria ‘Starkes Lieben’, these strings players confirmed their credentials: many are members of Europe’s outstanding period-instrument bands; perhaps this ensemble – in time – will become another. Four of them wove a stringy spell with four movements from Bach’s the Art of Fugue. Their skills fused gloriously for ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, where scamperings of cello and deft bass (Elizabeth Bradley), and some beautifully reticent, spicily registered organ continuo from Silas Standage worked wonders. The physical separation of the alto cantus firmus from the rest (as with Gillian Keith’s gleaming soprano earlier) helped clarity; one chirruping soprano–tenor duet was immense fun. Bach’s libretti makes use of vivid onomatopoeia: ‘Der Würger’ (‘Death the Strangler’) sounds like an escapee from Wagner’s Ring. The end was hope in store: ‘We eat and live on the true bread of Easter’.

Church Times, 12 March 2004