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Concert review: The Bach Players 'Nun komm!' at the Octagon Chapel, Norwich
And so once again to Norwich, for the third concert of the year, which together have constituted a pleasing (if fortuitous) balance of the secular (Restoration music by Florilegium), solo harpsichord (Mitzi Myerson) and on Friday The Bach Players in Nunn komm!, a program of Bach cantatas, instrumental chamber music and choral music by Heinrich Isaac.
The concert took place in the intimate (and historically intuitive) space of the Octagon chapel in Norwich. As the ensemble’s director, Nicolette Moonen writes in the admirable program notes, ‘Bach’s religious music demands to be played not in concert halls, nor in neo-Gothic churches, but rather in sacred buildings that can provide some match for it in atmosphere and acoustics – the Octagon chapel and St Johns [Downshire Hill, London NW3, the ensemble’s performing base] certainly do that’.
The program presented music from across a span of more than two centuries, from Heinrich Isaac (1450 – 1517), ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’, to one of J S Bach’s last cantatas. ‘In allen meinen Taten’ BWV 97, of 1734.
Seated as we were at the front of the (relatively) small audience space, we felt almost within the performance area. This was an exciting place to be, as the soloists, strings and keyboard launched into Bach’s ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 61. From such a small group of players (one to each part) the volume of sound was powerful: this was definitely a ‘life doesn’t get better than this’ moment – a long moment, as the cantatas are substantial, and I was struck again by the way that Bach writes such generously extended instrumental lines intertwining and responding to the vocal parts of the arias.
Invidious as it feels to single out individuals from such an exceptional group of performers, I want to mention Nicolette Moonen’s violin playing, quite outstanding in the obbligato part of the tenor aria ‘Ich traue seiner Gnaden’ (from ‘In allen meinen Taten’). The discipline and restraint exercised in the complex figurative passages accentuated the emotional force of the occasional moments of double-stopping.
This aria was a good example of one of the key things which makes the Bach Players special – the musical relationships between the performers. Nicholas Mulroy’s beautifully shaped tenor part was in perfect balance with the solo violin, (pleasingly felt at one moment when the singer glanced across, smilingly appreciative at a particularly accomplished turning in the violin’s journey). And one of the real pleasures of the concert was the close relationship between cello and organ/harpsichord, with their (as usual) high work rate, playing as they do almost throughout. Alison McGillivray was a real star, underpinning the music with a consistently serene and tranquil strength of phrasing and tempo.
Of course everyone attending the concert will have had their own favourite moments. One for me was Peter Harvey’s glorious bass, in ‘Nichts ist es spät und frühe’ also from ‘In allen meinen Taten,’ supported by the exciting architecture of the cello line, the whole sewn together by Silas Standage's sonorous harpsichord playing. This was a setting of Paul Fleming’s beautiful words,
‘There is nothing late or early,
for all my toil,
my worries are in vain.
He may deal with all I do,
according to His will
I place it in His care.’
Another of the strengths of the program lay in its contrasts. The emotional demands of the cantatas were leavened by the secular pleasures of the instrumental Ouverture of Erlebach. There was also a contrast in the use of forces in the music from different eras; solo lines and continuo in the Erlebach and Bach, and the absolute parity of parts aimed for in the vocal and instrument ‘Innsbruck’ section of the program. This last was beautifully achieved, with the additional variety of the singers performing from the high pulpit level during this sequence. This seemed appropriate given the focus given to the pulpit in the building – underlining the centrality of the word, in this religious and musical tradition.
* * *
The program was as follows:
J S Bach: Cantata ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’ BWV 61* * *
Philipp Heinrich Erlebach: Ouverture VI (Ouverture, Entrée, Gavotte, Menuet & trio, La plainte, Entrée, Gigue, Chaconne)
Heinrich Isaac: ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ verse 1
Christian J. Hollander ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ [instrumental]
Heinrich Isaac: ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ verse 2
Paul Luetkeman: ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ [instrumental]
Heinrich Isaac: ‘Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen’ verse 3
J S Bach: Cantata ‘In allen meinen Taten’ BWV 97
The Octagon chapel interior, Norwich
Further information about the Bach Players can be found at: www.thebachplayers.org.uk
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