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S & H Concert Review

J.S. Bach, ‘Weinachts-Oratorium’ The English Concert, director Trevor Pinnock, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday December 17th 2002. (M. E.)


This event was part of a series celebrating not only Bach’s great religious masterpieces but also the achievements of Trevor Pinnock during his 30 years as the director of the English Concert, and in common with their Proms ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ it had all the qualities we have come to expect from this ensemble: scrupulous attention to detail, warm communicativeness and highly emotionally charged playing and singing. It was also very much evident that this was one of a group of performances of the work, the others taking place in Spain, Italy and Germany: you do not achieve these standards of playing and singing without intense preparation, and there can be no better grounding for becoming truly intimate with a masterpiece than performing it more than just once before a live audience.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The English Concert is the finest ‘authentic’ orchestra in Europe, and this evening’s playing lived up to that. Pinnock directs in such a way as to inspire his musicians to give all that they have, and he has gathered around him a team with everything; in the twenty-first century we simply expect horns to play without droning and baroque violins to sound without squeaking, but it’s hard to overestimate just how much Pinnock has done to bring about this state of affairs. These people play as though such things as baroque oboes were the easiest instruments in the world, with nothing fraught or tense about any of the technical aspects, and the result is thrilling from first to last. The trumpets occupy a unique place in this work, and the playing here, by Mark Bennett, Michael Laird and Hans Peter Stangnes, was superb, blazing out with thrilling power: the oboes were almost equally exciting if naturally less showy.

A few small imbalances and mismatches aside, the choral singing was infused with elegance, passion and verve: I would have liked a little more forcefulness in the attack at ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ but this was compensated for by the vigour of ‘Herrscher des Himmels’ and the restrained yet moving ‘Wie soll ich dich empfangen.’ As we filed out at the interval, I overheard someone say ‘I’m disappointed in the size of the choir – I thought there would be three times as many’ but the view that numbers equals grandeur is not, fortunately, universal, and this small group proved ideal for this mostly intimate piece.

Perhaps more than any other choral work, the ‘Weinachts- Oratorium’ revolves around the soloists, and this group of singers were as fine an ensemble as you could hope to hear anywhere. As with the Passions, the narrative is held together by a tenor Evangelist, in this case also singing some of Bach’s most challenging writing for solo voice. John Mark Ainsley’s recitatives were models of engrossing drama, authoritative power and sensitivity to language: such lines as ‘Maria aber behielt alle diese Worte und bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen’ (Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart) and ‘Da sie den Stern sahen, wurden sie hoch erfreut’ (When they saw the star, they were full of joy) were delivered with easy grace in the phrasing allied to the most moving tenderness in the expression, engaging the attention as well as stirring the emotions as the words of all Evangelists should.

Ainsley’s singing of the taxing tenor arias was similarly impressive; he made the difficult appear effortless in the florid melisma of ‘Freude’ in ‘Frohe Hirten,’ and ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ was absolutely stunning, every note placed exactly, like pearls on a string, the extremely challenging articulation almost dauntingly precise, and the import of the words never compromised by the singer’s technique – far from it, for this was a most impressive technique used in the service of both words and music.

Lisa Milne did not have quite such daunting music to sing, but her performance was equally engrossing; she shares with Ainsley a demeanour which conveys the notion that she actually enjoys what she is doing, and her pleasure is communicated to the audience in the most unaffected way. She blended effortlessly with the bass in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ and her solo arias were beautifully sung, ‘Flösst, mein Heiland,’ with its exquisite ‘echo’ being phrased with clarity and a keen sense of drama, and ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen’ some of the best Bach singing I’ve heard – warm in tone, exact in diction and expressive in phrasing. This was thrilling singing from a soprano who is going from strength to strength and whose every performance I anticipate with delight; those with access to the Wigmore Hall who haven’t yet booked to hear her sing Mahler with the Nash Ensemble there on January 11th, should do so now.

Catherine Denley had the very daunting task of replacing the scheduled Alto, Diana Moore, at very short notice, and she gave a heartfelt, sweetly sung performance, remarkably confident and assured under such circumstances even though it was clear that we could not be hearing her at her best. She handled the recitatives with warmth and commitment, especially in the more dramatic sequences such as ‘Ja,ja, mein Herz soll es bewahren,’ and her singing of ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ was beautifully tender.

I was less than impressed with the baritone Christian Gerhaher when I heard him sing ‘Schwanengesang’ in London last season, but he seems more at home in Bach than in Schubert: his stage manner is rather anxious, but his intense seriousness is not inappropriate to this music, and he gave a very finely judged account of the bass arias as well as proving a tower of strength in ensemble. ‘Grosser Herr’ was given with plenty of splendour, both verbal and vocal, and ‘Immanuel, o süsses Wort!’ was quite beautifully sung. His recitatives, whilst not quite having the bite of Ainsley’s pacing and diction, were very well handled, and lines such as ‘der hat des todes Furcht vertrieben’ were declaimed with great authority.

A packed house gave the performance a rapturous reception, and rightly so; the beam on Trevor Pinnock’s face reflected the sheer joy, not only of having directed so thrilling a performance but of having been so central an influence on London’s musical life for the past thirty years – long may he continue, if no longer as Director of the English Concert but as a welcome guest.

Melanie Eskenazi

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