Prom 38: Solomon’s Knot – Bach Cantatas

Prom 38: Bach Cantatas
Solomon’s Knot

Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2019

Cantata 130 ‘Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir
Cantata 19 ‘Es erhub sich ein Streit
Cantata 149, ‘Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg
Cantata 50, ‘Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft

I have reviewed the Solomon’s Knot collective many times since their early days and have always been very impressed by their distinctive style of musical presentation. Although they perform a wide repertoire of early and contemporary music, it is in the music of Bach that their style seems to be particularly appropriate. This was their Proms debut – a late-night concert of four Bach cantatas all composed for the Feast of St Michael, his dragon-slaying antics making for some dramatic music. The 8 singers perform from memoty, with an attractively informal stage manner, directly addressing the audience and drawing us into the world that they are depicting. As times it is almost like listening in to a conversation between a group of friends. They move centre-stage for choruses individually, like a discussion group slowly forming, and then stand in a tight-knit shallow arc, When one of them is singing a solo, others will often stand nearby, as if listening to and encouraging a friend. 

Each of the four cantatas used four trumpets and timpani, along with a range of other key instrumentalists, notably principal violinist James Toll who did much to keep everything together, Russell Gilmour, trumpet, Eva Caballero, flute, oboists Rachel Chaplin and Mark Baigent and, most notably in this concert, bassoonist Inga Maria Klauche who, in Cantata 149, after an important contribution in the first bass aria, then came forward to join the alto and tenor singers front stage for her exquisite obbligato bassoon solo in the duet Seid wachsam, ihr heiligen Wãchter – a delightful musical moment. Sadly, an over-enthusiastic organ continuo player added far too much fluff and fluster from the background, as he had done in several other keyboard continuo moments. The key to good continuo playing, somebody said, is that it should not be noticed!

The solo singing ranged from outstanding to not so, the singular latter in the form of a countertenor who, unfortunately, had the sort of massively vibrato-laden voice that I am afraid that I just do not like and, in my view, clouds melodic lines and wreaks havoc with intonation. The vocal stars were sopranos Zoë Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, tenors Thomas Herford and Andrew Tortoise and the basses Alex Askworth and Jonathon Sells, the subtle director of the collective, although you would be hard-pressed to notice.

All the instrumentalists who could, stood to play, gathering around the singers in a tight group giving a nice focus to the music as it was projected into the hall. With the exception of the continuo keyboards, the balance between instruments and singers was spot on. One of many lovely moments came in the final Chorale of Cantata 149, which started with singers alone, ppp before the instruments were slowly introduced bit by bit, with a little flourish from the four trumpets at the end. The tiny concluding Cantata 50 is a single movement fugal chorus for double choir, presumably a survivor from an otherwise lost cantata, no doubt for a festive occasion. As Lindsay Kemp wrote in his excellent programme notes, this is “music of uncommon brilliance” that strikes “the ear as the most spontaneous and exuberant of responses to its subject”.

As with all the BBC Proms, this concert to listen to on BBC Sounds – here. It is well worth a listen, as is Solomon’s Knot on any other occasions you can get to. Their debut recording is due later this year.