Hampstead Baroque Festival: Bratwurst, Beer & Bach
L’Istante, Pawel Siwczak
Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead, 3 April 2016.
Bach: Orchestral Suite 1, Brandenburg Concerto 4, Concerto for violin and oboe, Cantata 42 ‘Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths’.
A number of churches are accepting the inevitable reduction in congregations and opening their buildings to wider community use. Heath Street Baptist Church, prominently positioned in the middle of Hampstead, is one such, reducing their services to Sunday mornings, but enabling a wide variety of activities during the rest of the week, including frequent lunchtime and evening concerts and, on this occasion, a complete weekend devoted to the ‘Hampstead Baroque Festival’. After four earlier events of English, Italian and French music, all accompanied by food, the weekend concluded with a Sunday evening concert devoted to ‘Bratwurst, Beer & Bach’, given by the newly-formed group L’Istante (not, incidentally, the only early music group to adopt that name *and now renamed as Isante) directed by harpsichordist/conductor Pawel Siwzak.
Their ambitious programme of Bach opened with a stirring account of Bach’s first Orchestral Suite, strong on rhythmic pulse and with an emphasis on the contrast between the two oboes and bassoon and the strings. Although with small string forces (one to a part) the oboes struggled to keep their volume in check, the balance overall was generally fine. Particularly effective was the Gavotte II with its distinctive anarchic fanfare-like string motif interrupting an otherwise gentle woodwind trio. Similar bits of anarchy came in the Menuet II, when Bach’s slurred notes cleverly confuse the beat.
This was followed by the fourth Brandenburg Concerto. This featured the instrumental highlight of the evening, with the impressively musical and technically assured recorder playing of Olwen Foulkes and Tabea Dubus. The solo violinist has a tricky time in this piece. Although clearly one of a trio of soloists, and with some technically virtuosic passages to negotiate, the violin has to keep the volume in balance with the recorders. As with the opening piece, which had the same issue for the oboists, this was not entirely successful. And, although it might have seemed a good idea in rehearsal to send the two recorder players up to a gallery (high above and some way behind the other players) for the central Andante, and back down again for the final Presto, the pause to allow them to do this was a bit awkward. I gather that this is an idea of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who views the piece as a violin concerto; perhaps understandably, given the technical difficulties of the violin writing. But I don’t think there is any reason to suppose that Bach intended the balance between the three solo instruments to be any different during the central movement. Indeed, it made the balance between the now distant recorders and the solo violin even harder, particularly as the violin is generally just supplying a bass line to the two recorders. Having said all that, Bach did specify the use of flauti d’echo, a term he never used elsewhere and whose meaning is open to interpretation. Discuss.
After the Concerto for oboe and violin (BWV 1060), the evening finished with the cantata Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths. It is a fascinating piece. Composed for the Sunday after Easter (so appropriate for this date), it is said that Bach wanted to give his singers a rest after their Easter efforts by starting the cantata with a lengthy Sinfonia. And what a piece the Sinfonia is. As is so often the case with Bach (and, indeed, of much Baroque music), the whole thing is built on a tiny motif, in this case of just four notes in a swirling pattern. That, and the delightful little skipped beats, gives an air of joviality. The text is based on Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the Resurrection, and includes a dramatic duet for soprano and tenor with an extraordinarily jagged bass line for bassoon and cello (another example of a Bach cross-beat slur), here played magnificently by Hayley Pullen and Bianca Riesner and with fine singing from Emily Armour and David Lee.
Pawel Siwczak directed from the harpsichord with an enviable sense of style and encouragement. As well as hearing talented young musician performing, what was also encouraging about this concert was the age profile of the audience, several decades below the usual classical music attendees. I assume several were friends of the performers (who were generally at post-graduate or recent post-post graduate level) but nonetheless this was an impressive turn out. Perhaps the relaxed approach helped, with drinks and food available, and drinks able to be taken into the church. And good for the powers that be at Heath Street Baptist church for giving young musicians the opportunity to perform. I hope they don’t mind me saying that I also appreciated not being prayed at, as can happen at many concerts in churches, even when the concert has nothing to do with the church other than the fact that they have hired out the space.