Prom 16 – I It Am

Cantata No.191 – Gloria in excelsis Deo
Cantata No.34 – O ewiges Feuer
Motet – Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt
Psalm 43 – Richte mich, Gott
Motet – Herr, nun lassest du deinem Diener in Frieden fahren
Zum Abendsegen – Herr, sei gnädig unserm Flehn
I It Am [BBC/Bach Choir co-commission: world premiere]

Tamara Matthews (soprano)
Rosa Lamoreaux (sopranos)
Daniel Taylor (counter-tenor)
Benjamin Butterfield (tenor)
Daniel Lichti (bass-baritone)

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem
The Bach Festival Orchestra
Greg Funfgeld

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 29 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Greg Funfgeld has been the conductor of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (founded in 1898) – this Bethlehem is in Pennsylvania) – and the Bach Festival Orchestra (founded 1959) for twenty years. It shows – it shows.

In effect, the BFO is a chamber orchestra, with only 2 cellos and 2 double basses. Wisely, there are 4 oboes – we hear Bach’s exquisite woodwind writing clearly – and 3 trumpets (when required, the rafters shake). Most players are women.

The house style is a joy. Speeds are nimble – impelled by a benign, spirited energy. The phrasing is ravishing – practised and firmly assured. Seamlessly we move from calms to climaxes – encountering on the way that momentary, billowing buoyancy that marks the truest Bach performances. The playing-style is leaner and lighter, but the spirit – and the work – of Karl Richter is here. I particularly honoured the second cello in Cantata 191: totally absorbed in plucking her strings robustly and exultantly, her whole body and bouffant hair swooped in time to her music-making.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem is no mean instrument either. From time to time, the 42 men were inaudible against the 64 women – in the blocks of chorale writing at the beginning of Cantata 191 and the first Mendelssohn motet, especially. Then the sound turned high and muddy. Otherwise – in counterpoint or canon – the singing was lustrous, translucent and shimmering, the interplay of voices clearly differentiated. The three remaining Mendelssohn pieces caught the attention gravely – especially the Zum Abendsegen: brief, darkly sonorous.

Unfortunately, the soloists were a mixed bag. Benjamin Butterfield gave most pleasure – his voice was clear, pure and firm. Daniel Taylor had command, but little light and shade. The two sopranos (Rosa Lamoreaux in the Bach, Tamara Matthews in the Larsen) warbled adequately, but without authority or charm. Daniel Lichti had a thin, strained voice – adequate for Cantata 34.

Put Libby Larsen’s new work, I It Am, beside anything of Sir John Tavener’s and it sounds very modern. Sonically, it is more adventurous than the Mass of Arvo Pärt – more angular and less melodious, too. Nevertheless, this is music of undoubted spirituality. The clear, simple, sublime devotion of St Julian of Norwich’s text shines through Larsen’s score. Through the gaunter style of her writing – particularly that for soprano and counter-tenor solos – grainy integrity makes religious-feeling manifest. Some of the orchestral writing is beguilingly sensuous – and the more robust moments are alive and arresting; mores the pity, then, that Daniel Lichti failed to provide the vocal richness that the score demands.

I commend this BBC/Bach Choir commission with moderate enthusiasm. Unfortunately, Libby Larsen received no bouquet. She deserved one.

Greg Funfgeld is a music-maker of the highest rank.

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