Bach, the Universe & Everything

Bach, the Universe & Everything
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kings Place. 14 January 2018

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s regular Kings Place Sunday morning ‘Bach, the Universe & Everything‘ series is billed as a “Sunday service for inquiring and curious minds; a place to bond with music lovers and revel in the wonders of science.”. In conjunction with The Institute of Physics, each event includes a Bach cantata and a talk from a distinguished scientist. This first event of 2018 reflected the Kings Place theme for 2018, ‘Timed unwrapped‘, with a talk by Professor Helen F Gleeson on Time and Perception. These are very popular events, but it was my first visit. Although not in the style of the many totally secular Sunday ‘services’ that have sprung up around the country in these post-religious days, there were elements of a church service in the organ pieces played before the start (of non-conformist, rather than C of E length), a reading, a choir ‘anthem’, notices, a hymn (in this case, of course, a Lutheran chorale) and a ‘collection’ at the bar in return for coffee and cake.

After a welcome from the OAE’s Chief Executive Crispin Woodhead (who had been playing the organ ‘voluntaries’) and an audience run through of the chorale, the ‘service’ proper started with a Telemann Fughetto played by OAE director Steven Devine and a reading of The Two Deserts by Coventry Patmore. Palestrina’s Tribus miracles ornatum, sung by the 8-strong choir (directed from within by David Clegg) introduced Professor Helen F Gleeson’s talk.

Bach’s New Year cantata, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (BWV 143), is a curious piece, and could well not be by him at all. Very little is known about it, including the date of, and the reason for, composition. If it is by him, it is a very early work. Several of the movements are very short, by Bach standards, and the writing includes many moments that do not really reflect the youthful talent of Bach as demonstrated in other early works. Its principal curiosity is that it is scored for three corni da caccia (hunting horns), bassoon and timpani along with the strings and continuo. For very understandable technical, practical, and musical reasons that proved far too complex to overcome (or to explore in this review), the three specified horns were replaced by trumpets. This created a very different, and not entirely satisfactory, sound world, the focus, clarity, and prominence of the trumpets being far removed from the warmth, subtlety, and exoticism of three hunting horns.

The soloists were three members of the OAE Rising Stars of the Enlightenment Scheme,
Charlotte Beament soprano, Nicholas Pritchard tenor, and James Newby bass, all three impressive. Notwithstanding the fact that, ideally, he shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, David Blackadder excelled as principal trumpet – as he always does. Zoe Shevlin also deserves a mention for her very exposed bassoon part in the aria Jesu, Retter deiner Herde, where a little 5-note phrase is tossed back and forth between violins and solo bassoon.

The closing words included quotes on time from Julian Barnes and Douglas Adams before the choir and audience joined in a choral version of a keyboard Partita on Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, by JSB’s 2nd cousin, Johann Bernard Bach, the audience/congregation singing the central chorale.

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