Updated 24 February 2019
Chiltern Camerata 9 February 2019
All Saints’ Church, Marlow
Bachfest! A Celebration of J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The first musical magic in this concert came from the voices of the Camerata Consort, under their director Mark Johnstone, in the Motet ‘Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf’ BWV 226. With the singers divided into two four-part choirs, on opposite sides of the chancel, the dramatic opening led to some very accomplished choral work, with just the right mix of momentum and vocal clarity. Effort had clearly gone into getting the cadences of the lines just right, and making every word audible in all the parts. The light cello and chamber organ continuo was perfectly balanced with the choirs, keeping the rhythmic edge, supporting where needed, but generally just helping to reinforce some excellent singing. This was at its best in the final chorale, ‘Du heilige brunst, süßer Trost’, where the fugal lines interwove with a beautiful sense of movement, enhanced by the church’s generous acoustic.
With a bit of logistical shuffling about, the orchestra joined the choir for the cantata ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ (BWV 192). The orchestra was set up somewhat back to front, with the bass and celli on stage right, (although so were the first violins whilst the seconds were on stage left). The result, as a neighbouring audience member said, was as if we had plugged our stereo speakers into the wrong channels, only not quite…
Playing baroque music of this sort on modern instruments always presents a challenge. Would a medium-sized orchestra of this size — twenty-one string players, five woodwind and organ continuo — behave like a small large orchestra, or a large small one? In this case, the cohesive playing had the intimacy and immediacy of a small ensemble and the woodwind blended easily with the strings. The opening – leading into the sopranos declaiming the familiar ‘Now thank we all our God’ theme — was a shade fast, losing some clarity of the string runs to the acoustic, but the ensemble lightness and the general nimbleness of playing and singing was a delight. Maybe owing to restricted space, the duet soloists Sheilagh Armitt and Andy Mackinder, stood out front with their backs to the conductor. This meant they could not see him and he could not see them. The result (better here than in a couple of near rallantandos in the ‘Magnificat’ that followed) was a feeling of singers and orchestra not being completely in touch with one another. But this was brilliantly put right in the closing chorale, a lively gigue in rhythm and tempo, with plenty of linear movement in all the parts and the original theme suspended within the texture, which made for a really strong end to the first half.
Joined by the trumpets and timpani for the ‘Magnificat’ (BWV 243) we now had the sense of a ‘small large orchestra’. Those two groups of instruments had somewhat dominated the concert’s opening Orchestral Suite No. 3, but here — sited further back in the chancel — they played with restraint and sensitivity. This medium-scale work is always splendid to hear and there were some real high points in this performance. Geraldine Rowe’s soprano solo, supported by continuo and oboe obbligato, was beautifully delivered, with voice and instrumentalists breathing as one, and rounded off by the vivid orchestral and choir entry on ‘ecce inem ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes’. Equally Matt Bernstein’s subsequent bass solo, with organ and cello accompaniment, was very effective. As the work built to the final ‘Gloria’ – including a fine tenor solo from Richard Milnes that felt as if he really meant the words — Bach’s writing and the combined skill of the players and singers brought the evening to a fine conclusion.
(Previous seasons’ reviews are on the ‘Archived Reviews’ page)