Homeward Bound – Final Concert … Bach Cantatas … St Nicolas

Cantata, BWV61 – Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Cantata, BWV36 – Schwingt freudig euch empor
Saint Nicolas, Op.42

Carolyn Sampson (soprano) & Roderick Williams (baritone)
London Handel Singers
London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings [Bach]

Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Kerry Grace Morgan & Eliot Shrimpton (actors)
LSO St Luke’s Youth & Community Choirs [Gareth Malone, Chorus Master]
Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea-Fisher & Laura Samuel (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Antoine Lederlin (cello)]
Charles Owen & David Syrus (piano)
William Whitehead (organ)
EC4 Music
Laurence Cummings

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 6 December, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

J.S. BachHere were two faces of Christmas: a solemn religious festival in the first half, within the confines of the Christian calendar and its liturgical Structures, followed by an unrestrained celebration adorned with traditional customs, myths and pantomime elements in the second. Participation ranged from a small group of elite professionals in the Bach cantatas to an entire community, audience included, for “Saint Nicolas”.

Actually that is an over-simplification: there was plenty of unbounded joy in the performance of the Bach works and thought-provoking depth, especially from Ian Bostridge’s treatment of the title-role, in “Saint Nicolas”. It was disappointing that Bostridge went down with a heavy cold and had to withdraw from his participation in the Bach cantatas. We were grateful that he sang in “Saint Nicolas”, indeed it was valiant of him to sing at this concert, as he had undertaken the role at a matinee only hours earlier. His deputies as tenor soloists in the Bach were Jon Bungard and Edmund Hastings, who stepped pluckily from the ranks of the London Handel Singers. They were technically capable, especially Hastings in the second cantata with its extended, breath-sapping runs, but short of power. Bungard’s Strength was more in the communication of feeling, notably in the joyful summons to the Saviour in the first of these Advent cantatas “Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche”.

The London Handel Singers were rather inconsistent, the sopranos sometimes over-prominent in four-part harmony, though better balanced with the altos in the two-part chorale of BWV36. Katherine Sharman provided gritty continuo-playing throughout.

Carolyn SampsonThe experienced Carolyn Sampson played her devout part as the god-fearing Virgin Mary in the first cantata’s sparkling aria ‘Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herz’. She supplied suitably angelic tone, negotiated its delicate decorations with aplomb and gained in warmth as she led up to the final impassioned declaration “O wie selig werd ich sein!”.

The second cantata is more secular in tone, not surprisingly, as it was originally written as a birthday greeting. The firm-voiced Roderick Williams showed no lack of Christmas Spirit in his aria ‘Willkommen, werter Schatz’, with its ceaseless jubilant chatter. Sampson was again supreme in her duet with violinist Adrian Butterfield ‘Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen’. His echo effects were exquisitely done, while her modest piety was swept upwards into exultant rapture as all restraints were released. Elsewhere the pairing on oboe d’amore of James Eastaway and Caroline Radcliffe may not have been note-perfect but their playing was imbued with just the right festive Style.

And so to “Saint Nicolas” – but not just yet. First the audience had to be warmed up for its part in the proceedings. Gareth Malone, of “The Choir” and Chorus Master of LSO St Luke’s Community Choir, did the necessary inspirational work with willing participants.

The majority of the performers were amateurs. This was music as a community activity. The orchestra was EC4 Music, formed of musically trained and gifted players who work in that postcode area of London, with String sections augmented by members of the Belcea Quartet. The difficult percussion parts were played (splendidly) by Students of the Guildhall School of Music.

The three-figure-Strong choral forces were equally community-based; Malone pointed out that not one of them had been auditioned! How lustily and spontaneously they sang (and without copies). I was reminded of being part a crowd of football supporters at a home game, with their repertoire of club songs, which they sing with miraculous unanimity, inspiring other supporters to join them until a barrage of sound is created.

The contest between good and evil was acted out by the two symbolic figures of devil and angel (Kerry Grace Morgan and Eliot Shrimpton) who appeared periodically to toss back and forth the theological arguments within their distant comedy double-act; both projected their lines immaculately.

Ian Bostridge. Photograph: Sheila RockIan Bostridge’s voice was attenuated in power and in the ring of his upper range by his cold, which had the paradoxical effect of making one focus on his interpretation of the character of St Nicolas and his psychological development. The section recounting Nicolas’s decision to commit himself to God had a gripping inwardness, enhanced by the plaintive String accompaniment, while his prayer before the Storm, unaccompanied except for the bass drum drone, was equally mesmeric. Yet it was typical of the work’s inclusiveness that sandwiched between these two episodes came an opportunity for the choristers to have fun depicting the swaying motion of the Storm-tossed ship and for children to come to the front of the platform to mime the actions of mariners.

The first half reached an exhilarating conclusion with Nicolas’s Episcopal election. The choirs were admirably co-ordinated in Britten’s brilliant fugal passage and the orchestra fearlessly cast aside inhibitions, the whole thing climaxing in the congregational hymn “All people that on earth do dwell”.

The mixture of reverence and recreation was maintained in the second half. Nicolas’s imprisonment brought the important pianists to the fore (David Syrus and Charles Owen), concluding with a poignant cello solo from Antoine Lederlin. The succeeding fairytale of the Pickled Boys was acted out with gusto while full justice was done to Britten’s musical setting, right through to the dazzling finish.

The groups of choristers characterised their music vividly throughout, and maintained a high Standard of intonation and ensemble through various musical Styles, from earthy to devotional. The final ‘Nunc Dimittis’ was deeply felt.

Throughout there was a unanimous sense of enjoyment. Much credit should go to Laurence Cummings. Sober participant in the baroque music of the first half of the concert, he was transformed in “Saint Nicolas” into an equal participant in an act of communal re-creation, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he urged on his team.

This was the climax of Bostridge’s year-long “Homeward Bound” season, which has very much borne the imprint of his personality and catholic tastes in music. The rewards of the programme have been widely appreciated and the whole enterprise owes much to the initiative of the management at the Barbican Centre, which continues to create a unique identity among the arts institution of London.

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