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A Potent Alchemy

The launch of a new series of Bach Cantatas
at London's Royal Academy of Music,


There was an ebullient buzz in the air at the inaugural concert of the Bach Cantata Series at the Duke's Hall of the Royal Academy of Music, London UK (25 January 2009), presented by the RAM in association with the Kohn Foundation, where the capacity audience enjoyed sparkling period performances of late and middle period Cantatas. The new RAM Principal Jonathan Freeman-Attwood introduced the series, welcoming the Duke of Gloucester and Duchess of Gloucester, RAM President, and paid tribute to the generosity and vision of Ralph Kohn, whose Kohn Foundation is known for its Bach philanthropy. Alongside the series are annual Kohn Bach Scholarships for gifted singing students, and the annual Kohn Bach Prize awarded to international scholars and interpreters, this year awarded to John Eliot Gardiner, and on previous years to Professor Christoph Wolff and Andras Schiff. Gardiner's lecture to mark the award traced the operatic nature of Bach's cantatas, and it was this aspect which was especially underlined in the opening programme: the cantatas Freue dich, eloste Schar, BWV 30 and Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein, BWV 128.

From left to right: Ralph Kohn, conductor Iain Ledingham, and Mrs Kohn
From left to right: Ralph Kohn, conductor Iain Ledingham, and Mrs Kohn

The idea of the new Cantata Series is both to stimulate enjoyment and interest in live period performance of this major Bach corpus, to provide a showcase for the RAM's Baroque performance specialists and, as Freeman-Attwood also observed, to create a happy blend of young and experienced performers, such as, on this occasion, the renowned baritone Peter Harvey, who gave an outstanding rendition of the Bass arias in BWV 30, matched impressively by the Kohn Bach scholars Jessica Dean, soprano and Natalia Brzenzinska, alto, as well as Thomas Hobbs, tenor, and George Humphreys, baritone. The soloists were supported with professional-standard finesse by the Academy Baroque Orchestra, zestfully directed by Iain Ledingham. With the high strings standing to play, the ensemble's articulation and evenness of bowing enabled admirably clear and delicate expression, while the natural brass were on splendid form, especially in Cantata BWV 128 with its virtuoso solos for horn and trumpet, and oboe obligatos.

In Cantata BWV 30, originally based on a secular cantata, yet revised to suit a liturgical function, the select chorus of ten produced a rich and scintillating sonority full of vivid attack and enunciation, responding to Iain Ledingham's genial brisk tempi. In the splendid opening imitative chorus in rondo form, Bach was at his most chorally elaborate, the initial rising motive propelled with an optimistic energy that set the tone for the whole concert. Its reprise at the very end of the cantata was invigorated with renewed zest. In between, the recitatives and arias flowed with drama and intensity. In the first aria 'Gelobet sei Gott', Peter Harvey imbued the text with particular significance, projecting the coloratura triplets with bravura, and conveying inner passion in the central interlude, while maintaining momentum throughout.

The alto aria 'Kommt, ihr angeforchtnen Sunder', sung beautifully by Natalia Brzenzinska, offered a colourfully lilting tableau, delicate pizzicato and muted violins and flutes creating a ravishing palette, despite a slightly hurried pace. Following the fervent chorale concluding the first part, Peter Harvey delivered the propulsive bass aria, 'Ich will nun hassen', with aplomb; with Ledingham as the continuo, the tempo was just right, with forward driving imitations and transparent textural layering. One of the delights of the concert was to encounter the fresh and vibrant soprano voice of Jessica Dean, in a strident and energised account of 'Eilt, ihr Stunden' her richly spinning vibrato infusing the central interlude with tonal beauty.

The Cantata BWV 128 dates from 1725 and evoked the soundworld of the Brandenburg Concertos in its ornate concertante effects, especially for brass and woodwind. The opening chorale, riveting rhythmically, is introduced by a bristling horn duet, here incisively conveyed by Andrew Clark and Samuel Jacobs, soon joined by the bright trumpet of Simon Tong, who took the lion's share in the aria 'Auf, Auf, mit heilem Schall', propelling the bass soloist George Humphreys in a continuous thread of melody. More highlights ensued, such as the miraculous triple counterpoint of 'Sein Allmacht zu ergründen', a dramatic yet lilting duet in which meliflouous oboe intermingles with the alto and tenor lines eloquently sung by Natalia Brzenzinska and Thomas Hobbs. Bach's intense harmonization of the final chorale brought the concert to an inspiring conclusion.

Iain Ledingham (left) and colleagues examine the manuscript of BWV 128
Iain Ledingham (left) and colleagues examine the manuscript of BWV 128

After suitably rapturous applause, the audience were granted the unusual delight of examining several folios from the autograph manuscript of Cantata BWV 128, one of the treasures of the Kohn Collection of Music. It afforded one a fascinating glimpse into Bach's compositional process with the sounds of the work still ringing in the mind's ear. Viewing sections of the opening and closing choruses, one could experience the rhythm of Bach's vibrant hand, the text's precise underlay and the sweep of choral and instrumental lines coming together in a potent alchemy. It was a worthy launch of a superb new concert series which promises to form a highlight of London's musical calendar during the next twelve months and, one hopes, longer. My advice: book early!

Copyright © 9 February 2009 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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