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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (16) - Bach at Greyfriars (3) : Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot (director), Greyfriars Kirk, 28. 8.2009 (SRT)

Katharine Fuge (sop)

Carlos Mena (countertenor)

Julian Podger (tenor)

Stephan MacLeod (bass)

Komm, du süsse Todesstunde BWV161
Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV4
Actus Tragicus BWV106

Another magnificent instalment in this fine series. The Ricercar Consort have been busy this festival: not only have they played two of these concerts but they also formed the orchestra for the celebrated production of Monteverdi’s
Il Ritorno d’Ulisse where the starring roles were taken by the Handspring Puppet Company. Having been in one of those audiences, the chief quality of their sound struck me as being a carefully sustained sense of line with playing that was subtle and refined. Their use of viols seems to draw a veil over their sound, as if we’re hearing it at a distance, but this is no mere backdrop for the vocal lines: instead it forms an integral part of a communion which brings the music together.

This was apparent in all of these cantatas, chosen around the theme of death. The most famous, and most beautiful, was the
Actus Tragicus. The “veiled” quality of the sound was very apparent in the opening sonatina, surely Bach’s most understated masterpiece, where the duetting recorders spun their unbearably poignant line over a flexible and sinuous viol accompaniment. The same sound world was evinced in Komm, du süsse Todesstunde, with its meditation on the joy that comes with the arrival of death. Throughout the players were helped by an extraordinary quartet of singers who responded to every nuance of Bach’s text. Carlos Mena’s countertenor was ethereal and suggestive for the opening chorale of BWV161, capturing the duality implicit in looking forward to death. His vocal colour was fantastically appropriate for meditations on the afterlife, but he was no mere disembodied feeling: he showed fantastic power and breath control, not least in a seemingly endless note on the word “schlaf” (sleep) in his second recitative. Julian Podger’s vigorous, muscular tenor voice provided much of the earthiness that these cantatas require for counterbalance, a strong contrast to the alto line, standing out particularly in the chorale settings where all four voices were involved. Katharine Fuge had a bright, mature sounding soprano, providing vocal beauty of a very different kind to Mena, while Stephan MacLeod’s bass voice anchored the whole ensemble, summoning up power and subtlety for his great aria in BWV4. If Bach’s own performances had been anything like these then Sunday mornings in Weimar must have flown by.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 8th
September. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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