Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Bach for Christmas

Bach, Weinacht Oratorio (Ludus Baroque cond. Richard Neville-Towle, Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh)
Canongate Kirk is something of a barn; acoustically, it provides great clarity and projection, but the cool-if-clear sound leaves no room for error. The four soloists, choir(s) and musicians of Ludus Baroque had no trouble in an effortless Weinacht Oratorio. They only perform twice a year, but release some well-received recordings. This is a case of privileging quality over quantity. 

The star of the show was Joshua Ellicott: his Tenor was loud, and clear, and pure. With power and tenderness at once, he was head-and-shoulders ahead of the other strong soloists. Will Berger’s Baritone and Catherine Backbone’s Alto seemed to pale in comparison to Ellicott. Fflur Wyn, the delightful Woodbird from Opera North’s Siegfried last year, seemed to lack the power she had shown in Leeds Town Hall with an orchestra many times larger. However I suspect with all of this, the acoustics explain more, for two reasons. Firstly, Ellicott occupied a preferable central position, slightly elevated with the choir, or bang smack in the middle of the crossing. Secondly, there were no apparent technical weaknesses in the voices & the singing was beautiful. So perhaps the type of voice intersected with the architecture in an unfortunate way. This is not to say that they were anything other than sublime. The flip side would be to say that Ellicott might have been reined in; but to my mind that would have been a great tragedy indeed. The choir and orchestra seemed to include some fairly young players and singers, and they held their own. Throughout, you could hear each and every word. 

Dramaturgy was on the agenda in a way it often isn’t in church performances. Rooted firmly in the composition and early performance history of Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirch and their two choirs, the spatial was emphasized in only one church. As Richard Neville-Towle explained usefully at the start:  to the left, saints (usually known as principals); in the sanctuary, angels (the choir at large); to the right, mortals (a smaller subsection of the choir). This worked well, even if Ellicott seemed to have to move around a bit; as established his voice did not suffer for these exertions. 

One rarely mentions the programme in too much detail. Peter MSaill accompanied his translation with comments on each of the 64 numbers –these were surprisingly effective and would add to a first or a hundredth performance. 

By the sixth act, the emotional-religious intensity, and musical power, had reached their maximum, with very stirring final numbers. This moved me to a greater degree than any previous occasion.   The audience spontaneously held a moment of quiet so desperately needed by so often missing, before gradually losing sight of the decorum which tempers the cheers, bravos and the like.

Full cast:
Fflur Wyn soprano
Catherine Backhouse alto
Joshua Ellicott tenor
William Berger baritone

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