The Clare Reformation 500 Project
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Clare Baroque, Graham Ross
St John’s, Smith Square. 30 March 2017
Bach Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
Brahms Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen?
Mendelssohn Wer nur den lieben Gott laßt walten
Vaughan Williams Lord, thou hast been our refuge
As part of their Clare Reformation 500 Project, the choir and associated period instrument orchestra of Clare College, Cambridge, gave a concert of music inspired by the musical legacy of Martin Luther’s 1517 Reformation. It was the culmination of the Lent Term series of Sunday services in the College chapel, each featuring a liturgical performance of a Bach cantata, using a variety of instrumental groups to accompany them. On this occasion they used Clare Baroque which, despite its name, was not a student orchestra but was made up of many of the ‘usual suspects’ from London’s early music performers, led by the ex-Clare violinist (and Director of Performance in the University Faculty of Music) Margaret Faultless.
With one exception, the format was to precede a vocal work with the Lutheran chorale that inspired it, with pieces by Brahms, Mendelssohn bookended by cantatas by Bach. The exception was Vaughan Williams, whose anthem Lord, thou hast been our refuge was preceded by Issac Watt’s metrical version of the same Psalm (O God, our help in ages past), set to William Croft’s famous ‘St Anne’ tune. It was accompanied by the St John’s, Smith Square organ.
The opening Bach cantata, Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, composed for Leipzig’s 1725 Reformation Day, explores the more military side of Luther’s musical world, the rumbustious opening orchestral introduction featuring dramatic passages for two horns and timpani set against driving string motifs. After a reflective aria for alto (Robin Blaze, with beautifully expressive obligato oboe from Frances Norbury), an extended version of the same virtuoso horn music (very bravely played by Ursula Paludan Monberg and Julian Faultless) returns in the powerful chorale Nun danket alle Gott. Soprano Mary Bevan and bass Neal Davis then join in a duet with a jagged unison arpeggio theme on the violins before the horns return for the final chorale.
The concluding Bach cantata written for another Leipzig Reformation Day, and was based on the so-called ‘Battle Hymn of the Reformation’, the triumphant chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. It features a wide variety of orchestral forces, including oboes d’amore, taille, and da caccia. To add to the drama of the evening, the version used was the one with three trumpets and timpani added to two movements by WF Bach. The three principal singers from the earlier cantata were joined by Nicholas Mulroy.
For the Vaughan Williams piece, a semi-chorus of four singers were drawn from the 21-strong choir, soprano Holly Holt being the most noteworthy. As well as her excellent contribution to the Bach cantatas, soprano Mary Bevan also sang a song-without-words aria in Mendelssohn’s Wer nur den lieben Gott laßt walten. With the exception of two alumni, the members of the 21-strong choir were current students; seven of the 19 studying music, the others subjects ranging from Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic to Computer Science. As is so often the case with young choirs, they were better in the more forceful moments. The Clare College Director of Music, Graham Ross conducted, keeping up a lively pace.