Christmas in Leipzig
St John’s, Smith Sq. 21 December 2015
Schelle: Machet die Tore weit; Kuhnau: Magnificat; Bach: Magnificat in E flat (BWV243a).
Returning for their fifth visit to the St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival, the Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective presented a concert based on Advent and Christmas music from Leipzig, with pieces by the three successive Thomaskantor’s. The seating in St John’s was reconfigured from the usual facing-the-stage layout to one where the orchestra and choir were to one side, projecting about two-thirds of the way into the floor space, with the audience arranged on three sides. This was undoubtedly excellent for about one-third of the audience who found themselves sitting directly in front of them, but most of the audience had only a side (or a rear-end view) of the performers. This didn’t affect the sound, but visually was rather awkward – in my case blocking the view of most of the soloists.
The opening Advent cantata Machet die Tore weit was composed by Johann Schelle for the first Sunday in Advent. Johann Schelle had been a choirboy in Dresden under Heinrich Schütz (a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli) and was the Kantor of St Thomas from 1677 until his death in 1701. A festive piece, the rousing opening chorus features trumpets and timpani and is followed by four verses for solo voice and continuo before the soloists and chorus combine for the final verse and repeat of the opening chorus. The first verse was sung by an overly-vibrant soprano whose identity was, perhaps fortunately, blocked by the other singers. The keyboard continuo, rather awkwardly, switched from organ to harpsichord but, with only one keyboard player were never used together. I think the practice in the Thomaskirche was for the main west-end organ to be used as the continuo organ, with a separate harpsichord player.
Johann Kuhnau became organist at St Thomas aged 24 while still a law student. He worked with the Thomaskantor Schelle, who may have been a cousin. He succeeded Schelle as Kantor in 1701 and was Bach’s immediate predecessor. His Magnificat is a flamboyant work, and is clearly intended for Christmas performance with the in insertion of Christmas chorales – a practice that Bach later used in his own E flat Magnificat. The festive fanfare-like introduction is followed by a sequence of solos and choruses. Like the earlier Schelle piece, Kuhnau is not harmonically adventurous, but makes up for it by instrumental colouring, notably with the violin flourishes on the words qui potens est and the instrumental drop-out at the end of Esurientes as (after some fine singing from soprano Charmian Bedford) the rich are sent empty away. The latter feature was taken up by Bach in his Magnificat with its delightful little plink at the end of Deposuit. The finest moment came with the tenor aria Et misericordia, with its throbbing bass line, featuring one of the finest soloists of the evening, Thomas Herford.
The E flat version of Bach’s Magnificat was first performed in July 1723, shortly after Bach’s arrival in Leipzig, and was reprised that December for his first Leipzig Christmas. It was later re-worked into the more familiar D major version. It is difficult to imagine that Bach hadn’t found Kuhnau’s Magnificat in the St Thomas archives or, at least, knew of Kuhnau’s compositional style. He includes the same Christmas Laudes in his setting, uses similarly festive instrumental forces, with three trumpets and timpani (plus an additional two recorders), but out-does Kuhnau in his descriptive writing at the various moments of drama. But there the comparison ends. As is so often the case in programme which compares Bach with his near contemporaries, Bach’s musical genius has no choice but to shine through. The chorus Omnes generationes is an early example, with the voices piled on top of each other to represent all the generations. The Et misericordia duet has a distinctly pastoral feel to it: it was very well sung by the two last-minute stand-in singers, Benjamin Williamson and Ben Thapa. It was interesting to see a slide trumpet used for the psalm-tone chant in Suscepit Israel. The two soprano solos at the start were sung by Lucy Goddard and Zoë Brookshaw, with later solos from Alex Ashworth, Thomas Herford, Kate Symonds-Joy, and Jonathan Sells – all impressive.
The programme gave a very prominent mention to somebody responsible for ‘Dramatisation’, although none was in evidence, apart from the fact that the singers seems to go out of their way to avoid standing up, or sitting down, together. Apart from the two late stand-ins, the singers all sang from memory, something of a feature with Solomon’s Knot and usually giving the singers direct eye-to-eye contact with the audience – something only possible for a few because of the seating arrangement. With the indisposition of the orchestra’s leader, violinist James Toll took over the far from easy task. There being no other director, it was down to him to coordinate everything, which he did with considerable skill. Chad Kelly also impressed with his keyboard continuo realisations, leaping from organ to harpsichord.