Pachelbel and Bach in Norwich and London

These reviews by Clifford Bartlett and Hugh Keyte, of our ‘Pachelbel and Bach’ (part 1) concerts in Norwich and London, are among the most perceptive as well as appreciative that we have had. They show the gains that can come when performances of the same music in two venues are compared, and when two different critics bring their different sensibilities and experiences to bear on the matter.

… Five days later, I again drove the 80 miles to Norwich for The Bach Players. I’d enjoyed their CDs, and looked forward to this event, especially since the programme included the settings of ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ by Pachelbel and Bach. Pairing them wasn’t quite so original an idea as the publicity suggested: the two cantatas were paired in a Prom on 11 September 1978, with the BBC Singers conducted by John Poole and with Peter Holman’s Ars Nova. I can’t say that I remember much about that concert, apart from writing the programme notes. But it is a significant pairing. Bach evidently knew his predecessor’s setting, which is in itself very impressive – though performing it after the Bach would be a disaster! Each composer set all seven verses of Luther’s Easter hymn, whose melody recalls the medieval sequence ‘Victimae paschali laudes’. Some verses incorporate a movement from darkness to light, all concluding with Alleluia. Bach makes each verse of the strophic text so different, but with the melody clearly present, and the power of the setting puts this on a par with the Tallis Fantasia as one of those works for which I feel I know every note. It is a work on which I have strong opinions; I expect performances to disappoint me. So it is very high praise to say that this didn’t: it was, indeed, by far the best I have heard. One merit was the use of only four voices, with no conductor or obvious director. (The group dynamics of the rehearsal process is another matter.) To take one obvious point, the doubling of tempo during the Alleluia of verse 1 was precise and brilliant. (A repeat of it made a fine encore.) I was delighted to hear again the bass whom I enjoyed so much in John Butt’s B-minor Mass, Matthew Brook: the almost throw-away treatment he gave to the last five notes of his solo verse was a sign of absolute confidence. Rachel Elliott (S) and Samuel Boden (T) duetted as a perfect pair, though I wouldn’t have noticed the marvellous descending tenor line at the end of Verse 4 had I not been listening out for it.

Sally Bruce-Payne deserves particular mention for her brilliant performance of Cantata 54 ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ – the one with the memorable opening chord (not quite as discordant as Rebel’s ‘Les Elements’, but more meaningful). She didn’t take the option counter-tenors generally prefer of transposing it up a tone to F major, but it fitted her voice perfectly, and was sung to perfection. Her attempt to add gestures to the recitative was interesting: it wouldn’t have worked in Bach’s organ gallery, but makes some sense when the audience can see the singer. The use of only four singers as ‘chorus’ was not a restriction but a liberation.

There were three Pachelbel works. The opening one [the Canon] was predictable, though curiously without its Gigue. ‘Mein Fleisch ist die rechte Speise’ is an interesting piece comprising a Sonata for scordatura violin (CGCF) and two movements with a soprano. ‘Christ lag’ has three (rather than Bach’s two) violas, which were held up by the players to show their different sizes. I was a bit disappointed by the string playing: it seemed a bit stolid, apart from the cello. Sadly, the Bach has knocked any recollection of it out of my mind, and my score isn’t accessible. I look forward to the CD.

The Bach novelty was a performance of the canons added to one copy of the Goldberg Variations. These were arranged into a sequence by the keyboard player, Silas Wollston, to great affect, turning what would have been tedious if played as 14 isolated pieces into an affecting piece of music. The closing quodlibet was also included, and sounded wonderful on strings.

Congratulations to Nicolette Moonen for selecting and directing so fascinating a programme.

Clifford Bartlett

We have had Hugh Keyte staying with us quite a bit lately, as is evident from his contributions to to this issue (not least, the proofreading). He was Radio 3’s early-music producer for a decade from the mid-1970s, at a time when early music was moving from a fringe activity to acceptability and popularity, and some readers will know his name from The New Oxford Book of Carols. He went with me to the concert reviewed above, and was so taken by it that he went again to the London performance two days later and wrote the following.

I have waited some three and a half decades to hear Pachelbel’s ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, having, like the group’s director-violinist, Nicolette Moonen, chanced upon the work and longed to hear it in tandem with Bach’s setting of the same chorale text, which was so obviously inspired by it. And having heard it once, I couldn’t miss taking a friend and hearing it again.

Sally Bruce-Payne’s ravishing account of the solo-alto cantata ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ included an object-lesson in how to put over the rapid twists and turns of Bach recitative, her modest but expressive gestures enhancing the effect. (Emma Kirkby wages a relentless pro-gesture campaign with young singers at summer schools, believing that it is an aid to tone production as well as communication.)

Then there was Silas Wollston’s masterly stitching together of the 14 additional canons to the Goldberg Variations, only discovered in 1974. This made a convincing musical unity of what look on paper like a succession of intellectual exercises. Already known was the canon that Bach proudly displays in the oil portrait that marked his admission to Leipzig’s counterpart of the Italian academies, the Mizler Society. The three parts work against themselves in inversion, but produce a mere scrap of music in performance. This Silas cleverly segued into his strings-and-continuo arrangement of the Goldberg quodlibet – to my ear much wittier than on keyboard. This is a real piece of creative musicianship which could find a place in many a chamber concert, and should surely be published.

Bach’s ‘Christ lag’ (at once a young man’s tribute to the older master and a demonstration of his own effortless mastery) was simply the best rendering I have heard, soloists ideally matched, and constituting a full and sufficient demonstration of the rightness of one-voice-per-part. Never for a moment did one feel the need for more volume; there was never that weird disparity of scale between solo and choral numbers which can make conventional performances so subtly unsatisfying: and the most gifted conductor with the most virtuosic choir could never have elicited the variety and quick-fire interaction that these quartets of intelligent singers brought to bear. Early experiments with single-voice Bach were not uniformly effective, but collective experience is paying off.

A great surprise was the difference that the two very different acoustics made. It could almost have been two different groups. In the crystal-clear but coldly clinical Norwich chapel the voices were greatly advantaged, but the single strings often sounded heavy, even forced in tone. It took me some time to realise that these were in fact baroque instruments! In St John’s Downshire Hill, there could be no doubt about this, and even tended to the over-bright, with voices having to work much harder. But the overall effect was stunning, a vast improvement. In the Pachelbel, for instance, the upper strings sounded, properly, like additional extra parts above the soprano lines rather than like a slightly incidental halo. I suspect that The Bach Players’ future Norwich concerts will be more effective in the Octagon Chapel, a venue that they have previously used. How will the CD sound?

Hugh Keyte

Early Music Review, December 2010