BBC Proms: Bach & Handel

BBC Proms: Bach & Handel
Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Ann Hallenberg
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2021

Handel: Donna, che in ciel HWV 233
Bach: Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4
Handel: Dixit Dominus

Eschewing all the social distancing provisions that the BBC Proms had arranged for orchestras, John Elliott Gardiner’s own Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists crammed tight onto the (specially enlarged) Royal Albert Hall stage for a performance of two pieces seemingly written for the same Sunday in 1707 by two 22-year-old composer, Bach and Handel, both at the start of their very different careers. This review is based on the BBC Four televised broadcast.

The difference in the musical environments that the two composers found themselves in was apparent from the first words of Donna, che in ciel as the opening recitative thanks Our Lady for “restraining her wrathful son” who, it seems, was to blame for the 1703 Rome earthquake whose 1708 anniversary it was celebrating. Although retaining his Lutheran religious roots, Handel absorbs the Roman Catholic ethos in musical terms. Operatic in style from the start, the solo singer revealed the turmoil before the “great mass of the earth reverted to its still centre” and the sun broke through the clouds, a moment reinforced by shimmering strings and an emotional wrought aria. The chorus only enters for the initially reflective final section, with its striking use of harmonic tension, before the rousing conclusion. The final flourishes were well articulated by the chorus and soloist Ann Hallenberg, whose espressive voice made such an impression. The overture featured several violin solos from the excellent orchestra leader, Kati Debretzeni. This was the first Proms appearance of this piece, and may be the last: but it was well worth hearing.

The wide range of expression and volume in the opening bars hinted at a romantic interpretation of these Baroque masterpieces. This continued with the harmonic tension at the core of Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden, one of the first cantatas that he composed. He saw the Passion story through Lutheran eyes, but applied his own sense of drama, first seen in the tumultuous alleluias at the end of the opening section. To this, Gardiner added his own layer of drama with the powerful duet between the full sopranos and altos of the choir in Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt and the massed tenors who follow with Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn with its dramatic word painting.

The use of the full chorus rather than solo singers gave a sense of power not always apparent in Bach cantata performance, although authenticity might have suffered in the process. Although the premise of the concert was comparing two works composed for the same Sunday in 1707, Gardiner performed a later version of the cantata, without the so called ‘archaic’ instruments (cornetts and trombones) that could well have been used in the original performance.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus was given another characteristicly bold and punchy reading by Gardiner, although he pushed his vocal forces rather too much for my taste. The vast range of emotions were far better expressed in the more subdued moments, but hearing his singers belting out their notes as if their professional careers depended on it (which might well have been the case, of course) really didn’t do them or the music many favours. The soloists were all drawn from the choir, and all were impressive, despite their pressure on them to push the sound – not necessary, even in the vast space of the Albert Hall. On the televised broadcast, the basses seem a little overpowering at times, but the balance between choir, soloists and orchestra was generally apt.

The orchestral player and singers are to be congratulated on surviving the rigours of what must have been a tough gig. Their professionalism shone through, as did the extraordinary talents of these two young composers.