New Year’s Eve – Bach at Wigmore Hall

Orchestral Suite No.4, BWV1069 [early version]
Cantata – Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV58
Quodlibet BWV524
Harpsichord Concerto in A, BWV1055
Cantata – Selig ist der Mann, BWV57
Motet – Lobet den Herrn, BWV230

The King’s Consort:
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Robin Blaze (countertenor)
Charles Daniels (tenor) Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Lucy Russell & Matthew Truscott (violins), Jane Rogers (viola), Jonathan Manson (cello), Timothy Amherst (double bass), Alexandra Bellamy & Molly Marsh (oboes) and Hannah McLaughlin (oboe & oboe da caccia)
Matthew Halls (harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 31 December, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Out with the old year and in with the new, and what better way to celebrate than this well-constructed all-Johann Sebastian Bach programme, preferable by far to standing in a freezing Trafalgar Square. A good many people felt the same way since there was a long queue for returns.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in a 1748 portrait by Haussmann Both halves of the programme opened with an instrumental work – what appears to be an early version of the Orchestral Suite that we know as Number 4 and the familiar Harpsichord Concerto in A. The Suite – minus the familiar trumpets and drums – was probably made during Bach’s years in Cöthen (he used the music from the opening ‘Overture’ as the opening to a cantata “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” on Christmas Day 1725 shortly after moving to Leipzig), The slim-line version makes use of strings plus three oboes (one da caccia) and continuo, perfect forces for Wigmore Hall, and it received a joyous, lilting performance, not the last word in precision but full of character in the ‘Bourée’ and ‘Gavotte’ and suitably exhilarating in the final ‘Réjouissance’.

The first of the two Cantatas, “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (Ah God, how oft a heartfelt grief), an uncharacteristically sorrowful choice of text for the Christmas period (it received its first performance on 5 January 1727), drew some mesmerising pianissimos from the luxuriantly creamy-voiced Lucy Crowe in her main aria with solo violin, “I am content in my sorrow”, as well as an imposing contribution from the bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams (who was coming down with flu but gave highly creditable performances both cantatas).

The first half ended with a curiosity, Bach in purely domestic vein; a “Quodlibet’, literally ‘as you like it’, was probably written for a wedding party, Latin mixed with German, Bach off-duty, its text full of slapstick, riddles and what were probably family in-jokes, some of them distinctly risqué. The vocal quartet let collective their hair down and hammed it up riotously.

The least satisfactory part of the evening was the harpsichord concerto. It was undoubtedly congenial but in all three movements Matthew Halls chose speeds which did the music few favours, fractionally too fast in the outer ones (especially the Allegro ma non tanto finale) for the music’s full rhythmic power to emerge, replaced instead by a kind of all-purpose exuberance, and too slow and static in the Larghetto.

“Selig ist der Mann” (Blessed is the man) – first performed on 26 December 1725 – and the joyous concluding Motet “Lobet den Herrn” (Praise ye the Lord) – were the evening’s true highlights, the one for Lucy Crowe’s magnificent account of the first of the two arias “Ich wünschte mir den Tod” (I would now yearn for death) – not when she’s singing as well as this – and the other for the quartet’s exhilarating account of the motet, all the more effective for the singers being spaced across the stage.

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