The title of this evening’s Bach concert in Hall One at Sage Gateshead couldn’t have been more apt – “Glorious Bach” offered up exactly what it said on the tin as Royal Northern Sinfonia, with their guest conductor, Baroque specialist, Laurence Cummings delivered some of Bach’s happiest music in a radiant and unfussy way.

Cummings’ stylish poise was also a salutary reminder to me that the hyperactive, slightly manic style favoured by many modern small ensembles isn’t the only way to approach Bach’s instrumental music. The Gavottes and Bourrées in the two orchestral suites were particularly buoyant with Cummings providing bounce and energy from the harpsichord – sometimes literally, as he sprang up and down on his seat, conducting with head, arm and body. The overture of Orchestral Suite no.4 in D major started messily and the oboes didn’t quite lock together on their solos, but by the second movement Bourrées things had settled down and the interplay between the strings and oboes was tightly timed and full of fun. By contrast, the Overture of the third suite at the end of the evening had a lovely rounded swing and the transition from the fast central section back to the slow reprise of the opening came off particularly well.

Mhairi Lawson © Ricardo Alcaide
Mhairi Lawson
© Ricardo Alcaide

The first of Bach’s two violin concertos, BWV1041 was rich and luxurious. Subtle touches of rubato from soloist Kyra Humphreys added gracefulness and light to the first movement; again the word that came to me here, as it did so often during this concert, was poise. The slow movement was infused with Italian sunshine, the solo line singing out against the gentle sway of the accompanying strings.

Like some of Bach’s instrumental music, it’s not clear exactly when the cantata fragment Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft was composed and in fact there’s even some doubt about whether it was actually written by Bach. The text, from the book of Revelations, comes from the reading for the feast of St Michael, and the bold, declamatory choral opening accompanied by drums and trumpets certainly conjures up images of St Michael going into battle. The men of the chorus delivered a fantastically explosive opening, although yet again, the decision by Sage Gateshead to put the choir almost at ground level behind the orchestra meant that some of the choral sound was lost.

BWV191, the second choral work on the programme, comes from a Christmas service and is an unusual example of Bach setting a Latin cantata. Although on paper, this might have seemed an obscure work, the music was anything but, because these three movements – two glorious fugal choruses and a duet for soprano and tenor later found their way into the Gloria of Bach’s stupendous B Minor mass.

After the glorious opening with a solid lead from the altos and high, clear trumpets, the “et in terra pax” section was cool and gentle, the trumpets always there but saving their power for a final burst at the end. Tenor Daniel Norman was a last minute substitution for Thomas Walker, who was ill, and he slotted in effortlessly with soprano Mhairi Lawson. Their two voices were beautifully matched, and radiantly happy against the warmth of Eilidh Gillespie’s flute solo. The final movement “Sicut erat in principio” (“Cum sancto spiritu” in the Mass version) pulsed with energy, with precise, tight singing from the chorus and lovely surges in the orchestra.

This exuberant Gloria would have been the obvious way to end the concert, but instead Laurence Cummings gently lowered the temperature by returning to the orchestral suites. The long notes of the famous Air floated sweetly through the hall, with Cummings keeping just enough movement in the lower parts so that it was relaxed but not stagnant.

In a programme that demanded them to play, without many breaks, in everything except the violin concerto, the stars of the evening were undoubtedly the three tireless trumpeters, Richard Martin, Marion Craig and Jon Holland. Bach’s writing for the trumpet covers all the instrument’s capabilities, from the obvious excitement of their angelic fanfares in the Gloria, to an extra layer of high sweetness above the strings and winds in the suites, and moments of virtuosity: their wonderfully clean trills in the third suite’s Gavotte were a nice foil to the gentle air that came before, and their explosion of joy in the fourth suite Réjouissance against neatly scurrying violins made for a great end to the first half. And, as so often happens in baroque music, the last word must go to the timpanist, for Marney O’Sullivan’s crisp, elegant rolls added a stylish touch to the music’s most exciting moments.