Amongst this year’s Proms foci, the five-hundredth-anniversary of Luther’s Reformation tops even the four-hundredth-and-fiftieth anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. Both this evening’s earlier Prom (which opened with Stravinsky’s transcription of Bach’s Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’) and this late-night one kick-started the strand in bracing style: John Eliot Gardiner – taking a break from Monteverdi celebrations – turned to Schütz, specifically three 1617 Psalm settings, written for the centenary of the Reformation, before ending with a pair of Bach’s Lutheran cantatas from a century later.
That change of a century necessitated a change of instruments (most notably in the oboists, swapping oboes d’amore, da caccia and taille), but common to both composers was Gardiner’s decision to keep his performers close; crowded together at the front of the platform, with choir members and wind instrumentalists mixed together (akin, though surely coincidentally, to Salonen’s arrangement for the Bach/Stravinsky). This was particularly arresting in the three Schütz settings – almost acerbic with real punch, especially the repeated refrain in ‘Danket dem Herren, denn er ist freundlich’, reiterated fervently after every line.
By comparison the two Bach Cantatas, composed for separate Reformation Days (October 31), were more spacious and softer-grained, despite the expense of larger orchestrations. No.79 – including the well-known Lutheran hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’ and featuring two horns – was dwarfed by No 80, twice as long. Common to both works, alto and bass soloists Reginald Mobley and Robert Davies were joined in No.79 by soprano Amy Carson, and, in No 80, by soprano Miriam Allan and tenor Hugo Hymas, all peeling out of the choral ranks when required. Given the proximity of players and chorus, there was a concentrated focus in the sound, with a satisfying bloom and a suitably resonance evaporating into the darkness.
Sir John Eliot knows the Royal Albert Hall well – next year will see the fiftieth-anniversary of his first Prom, and that of his Monteverdi Choir (then with the English Chamber Orchestra) – and here he brought his wealth of experience and intellectual rigour to both programming and performance. And just to prove his versatility, in Prom 31 he turns to Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust.
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- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms