EUBO: Heaven’s Sweetness

Heaven’s Sweetness
European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) & Singers of Barock Vokal
Alfredo Bernardini, director & oboe
St John’s, Smith Sq. 27 January 2017

Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D BWV 1069a (original version); 
Cantata: Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen BWV 123; 
Cantata: Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt BWV 151;
Cantata: Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut BWV 117.

Image may contain: 2 people, people on stage and indoorPart of the 2015 expansion of the European Union Baroque Orchestra’s activities has been the EUBO Mobile Baroque Academy (EMBA), a cooperative project aimed at finding new and creative ways of addressing the unequal provision of baroque music education and performance across the European Union. The touring orchestra (EUBO) still forms the core activity of the EMBA, reforming each year with a new intake of talented young period instrumentalists chosen from educational auditions held each spring. For more than 30 years EUBO has provided specialist training and experience, and has encouraged and supported many of the top period instrument specialists around today. One such is the distinguished oboist and director Alfredo Bernardini, a member of the very first EUBO in 1985 and the director of this EUBO tour.

The current EUBO incarnation represents 14 different EU countries. They have been performing together since last July, and last performed in London in November 2016 (reviewed here) with a programme based on Handel and his London contemporaries. For this concert they focussed on Bach, performing three of the cantatas that he wrote for Leipzig festivals along with one of his most complex Orchestral Suites, here performed in the rarely heard original version, lacking the trumpets and timpani of the later version. This allows the focus to fall where it should, on the three oboists and bassoonist whose virtuosic playing was very evident in this performance. Alfredo Bernardini joined the two EUBO oboists, Neven Lesage and Miriam Jorde Hompanera and bassoonist Claudius Kamp, the latter excelling in one of the most virtuosic moments of all baroque bassoon repertoire, in the second Bourrée. In the opening Ouverture, Alfredo Bernardini’s direction emphasised, through articulation, the way in which Baroque composers used small motifs to build their musical structures. I also liked the way he added an air of theatricality to the proceedings by using the directional qualities of the oboes to emphasis certain moments.

For the three cantatas, EUBO were joined by eight members of the Barock Vokal, a one year masters degree singers education programme of the Hochschule für Musik Mainz and the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The first two cantatas were written in 1725, as part of Bach’s second cycle of Leipzig cantatas. Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen was written for Epiphany. Bach avoids the obvious Magi references, but compares the contrasting imagery of Himmelssüßigkeit (Heaven’s Sweetness) and Höllenfeind (the Fiend of Hell).

Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt was composed at the end of 1725 for 27 December, the third day of Christmas. As in many of the cantatas intended for performance just after a major festival, it is simple in structure and instrumentation. There are no choruses, and the pastoral mood is emphasised by the use of flute and oboe d’amore. It opened with one of the finest vocal solos of the evening, with soprano Sonja Grevenbrock’s excellent singing of the gentle triple-time opening aria, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt. She was accompanied by the impressive flautist Michaela Ambrosi, the most prominent of the EUBO solo instrumentalists during the evening.

The concluding cantata was Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, written a few years after the previous two Leipzig cantatas. We do not know what occasion it was composed for, but its jubilant mood and non-specific text suggests a celebratory occasion, perhaps secular. The bustling opening and closing movements are in the form of a chorale fantasia on the famed Lutheran chorale Es ist das Heil uns komme her with its distinctive minor third interval in the first line. There was some tricky passagework for the continuo cellist Alex Jellici, bassoonist Claudius Kamp and organist Sara Johnson Huidobro. The bass aria Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muss featured a violin solo by the EUBO concertmaster Aira Maria Lehtipuu, a member of EUBO 2005.  

As ever, the playing of the young EUBO instrumentalists was outstanding, their evident enthusiasm bring a delightful freshness to Bach’s music. Alfredo Bernardini’s supportive direction was exemplary, giving just enough information to the players to encourage them to give of their best, without drawing undue attention to himself. it was good to see him sit out the simpler accompanied arias and recits, showing his confidence in the performers.

EUBO have already performed this programme in Luxembourg and Malta and move on to Belgium and Germany. They return to St John’s, Smith Square on Friday 19 May as part of the London Festival of Baroque Music, with their enigmatically entitled programme, ‘On the brink of Love’.

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