Spitalfields Music: Solomon’s Knot
Bach B minor Mass
Shoreditch Town Hall. 11 December 2016
The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival concluded in spectacular style with the welcome return of Solomon’s Knot, a group that had impressed previous Spitalfields audiences – and have also impressed me in the past with their innovative approach to music performance. Their full title is the Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective, a name that sums up their approach. Founded in 2008, they perform with small forces, singing from memory, with no conductor and with a relaxed stage presence, helped by an informal dress code. For this Bach B minor Mass, they transfixed the audience with an extraordinarily powerful performance.
They used Joshua Rifkin’s edition of the piece, and his proposal that the work was intended to be sung as an ensemble piece for eight one to a part solo singers. The need for two extra singers for the concluding section led to Solomon’s Know using the 10 singers throughout to reinforce the choruses. The 20-strong orchestra, led by violinist James Toll, completed the well-balanced line-up of musicians. The fact that the singers do not use scores directly involves the audience in the music, as the singers eyes scan the audience and as they visibly respond to the music they are singing.
Under their unobtrusive director Jonathan Sells, they adopt a gently theatrical approach to performance, the singers reacting to each other and to the music. One example of this is the way that they segue pieces together. When a full chorus gives way to a single soloist, the singers slowly move back to their chairs, glancing back at the singer left centre stage who, in the meantime, is looking at the orchestra or the instrumental soloists that is starting their piece. At the end of the solo, the rest of the choir slowly move to join the soloist to form a full chorus. In Bach’s many fugal passages, where individual singers join in one by one, their colleagues look on at what seems to be a personal statement, before turning their eyes towards the next voice to enter. They sing with a slight suggestion of a revivalist gathering, each singer openly supporting the others and visibly reflecting the texts. This was most effective in, for example, the Et incarnatus est / Crucifixus section of the Credo, their stony faces reflecting the solemnity of the text before the outburst of joy with Et resurrexit. It is all beautifully managed and staged.
The opening was particularly impressive. The 10 members of the choir arrived on stage and stood impassively as the applause died down and then, without any obvious sign of direction, every single one of the 30 musicians came in together with perfect timing. And so it was throughout. Apart from occasional indications from leader James Toll, there was no obvious director, each piece starting spontaneously from within whichever group of musicians were involved.
In the spirit of their cooperative nature, it would perhaps be invidious to pick out individual singers, although I will complement soprano Zoë Brookshaw for her excellent trills and ornaments. Some of the instrumentalists certainly deserve mention. Notable amongst those was Anneke Scott’s outstanding horn solo in Quoniam tu solus sanctus, performed front stage with the chorus gathering around to experience her final notes. Violinist James Toll, bassoonist Inga Maria Klaucke, flautist Eva Caballero, and oboist Leo Duarte also excelled in their various solo roles. I also liked the continuo realisations from Chad Kelly, particularly on the chamber organ. Shorditch Town Hall is an impressive space for music, the decorations around the stage indicating that music was very much in mind when it was first opened a hundred years ago.
None of this would be relevant if the performance was not up to scratch. But, despite the self-imposed difficulties, this rates as one of the finest performances of the B minor Mass that I have ever heard. I have never felt so emotionally involved and moved by music that usually reduces me to tears anyway.