Prom 42: Johann Sebastian Bach & Arvo Pärt – The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

Komm, Jesu, komm!, BWV229
Nunc dimittis
Singet dem Herrn, BWV225
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 16 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen at the BBC Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouJ. S. Bach and Arvo Pärt both seek to capture the sacred and divine realm in their choral music but they do so by very contrasting means. Where Bach calls upon the most intricate weaving of contrapuntal strands to create a sublime harmony, Pärt uses chordal sequences which are rhythmically and harmonically simple, and often repetitive, and in which silence is as important an element as any sound, in order to evoke transcendent stillness.

Harry Christophers’s interpretations of the works in this late-night Prom showed how these two approaches complement one another with the subtly blended texture he generally elicited from the The Sixteen. In Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm! they emphasised the physical weariness of which the text speaks, rather than expressing any earnest desire in the repeated imperative “come” addressed to the Lord. The gently buoyant undulations for the melismas on “I will yield myself to thee” neatly drew a contrast with the wearied sighs at the opening so as to provide a judicious resolution to the Motet, and the eight parts of the texture remained lucid throughout, never rising above mezzo-forte.

Arvo PärtPhotograph: WoesingerThe joyful Singet dem Herrn was also treated in a subdued manner but it opened out in terms of dynamic vigour for the concluding “Hallelujah” as the fast choral lines rumbled along remorselessly but seamlessly. The repeated “Singet” at the beginning rang out from The Sixteen like bells (perhaps drawing a parallel with Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” style), but this section could otherwise have been realised more boisterously to form a tidy symmetry with the ending of the piece as well as a contrast with the comparative serenity of the chorale ‘Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet’.

Jesu meine Freude was far more forthcoming with a more varied range of dynamics observed, and the chorales especially tending to be vividly articulated and increasingly more vociferous as the sequence progressed. Textures were also more imaginatively varied by treating the section “So aber Christus in euch ist” as a trio for three soloists, and the chorale verse following it given to a semi-chorus to apply its introverted mood correctly. In all three Motets the four non-credited continuo players (on chamber organ, cellos and double bass) were models of discretion.

The two Pärt compositions, interspersed, were delivered with icy precision well suited to the music’s emotional restraint. The Sixteen delineated a clear trajectory for Pärt’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis (composed for St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh in 2001), appropriately reaching a climax at “a light to lighten the Gentiles” with its monumental, spacious chords like a Bruckner Motet. Nevertheless the canticle could have been projected with a greater urgency into the Royal Albert Hall, so as to create a sense of spiritual intensity emanating from the music as well as from the pauses between the hesitant chords on “secundum verbum tuum in pace” for instance.

Harry Christophers conducts The Sixteen at the BBC Proms 2016Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe three English-language Odes comprising the Triodion (1998) could also have benefited from a touch more mystical fervour to allay what otherwise came across as the music’s monotony in its understated, essentially monophonic sequences; the climax of the third Ode in honour of St Nicholas could have been left suspended for longer to invoke an experience of religious ecstasy.

Elsewhere, though, Christophers certainly sustained a careful, considered way with the music so that it complemented the motion and rigour of the Bach.

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