The more concerts you experience, the more grows your confidence in being able to pick a good one. And this promised to be good, given the exceptional skill of the Academy of Ancient Music, and a team of soloists featuring Mary Bevan. However, and perhaps inevitably, I found myself relishing quite unexpected aspects of this evening of Bach, while not enjoying others to which I had long looked forward. So, it was not Bevan’s soprano, but Matthew Brook’s sumptuously resonant bass which turned out to be the vocal highlight; and the programme of reconstructed Bach contained one or two unpleasant surprises amongst the great mass of uplifting, mathematically satisfying harmonies. Both things I would have bet against, even hours earlier.

The Academy of Ancient Music © Marco Borggreve
The Academy of Ancient Music
© Marco Borggreve

Proceedings opened with Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major in its “putative original form” according to Joshua Rifkin, the score reduced to first violin and continuo lines only, the lines written by JS Bach himself in the oldest source we have for this piece, which finds trumpet, oboe, and timpani parts written by CPE Bach, and second violin and viola parts in the hand of Bach's student Johann Ludwig Krebs. The mellifluous Ouverture moved from noble melancholy to playfulness, on to a sense of intrigue, and finally forwards to adventure, as its lyrical, flowing structure crystallised into unison moments full of conviction. Frankly exquisite string playing from the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, brought the familiar, graceful theme of the second movement an elegant freshness which was truly beautiful. The lithe, dynamic lines of the Gavotte positively gleamed with a tangible sense of fun, while the Bourée seemed to evoke a more contented joy. Waves of sprightly sound characterised the final Gigue, played with flourish and superb control.  

So, all was good going into the Cantata no. 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, where after a melodically colourful, joyful Sinfonia, the surprises started: first projection problems from tenor Samuel Boden, then patchy breath control from countertenor Reginald Mobley. Mobley’s soft, almost floral voice is wonderfully smooth and expressive, with decent projection and diction, but inconsistent support through his phrases meant his performance couldn’t quite live up to his initial promise, with accuracy suffering in some noticeably ragged finishes; I suspect he is capable of much better than this. Things then got worse in a harmonically disjointed Chorale between soprano and tenor, which quickly felt uncomfortable to listen to, with cello and harpsichord seemingly playing at intentional odds while vocal lines lurched at extraordinary angles across and into each other: not their fault, but not a good showcase for the talents of either Bevan or Boden. Happily, Matthew Brook came to our rescue with a glorious bass recitative delivered with real charisma, next singing his aria, “Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen”, with panache and conviction. Brook’s gorgeously full bass manages to convey genuine conviviality, and sincerity, as well as magnificent musicality. The closing chorale brimmed with satisfying harmonies, but the singers noticeably lacked the sense of unison which so impressed in their orchestra; flapping consonants and swallowed vowels imparted a slightly florid, rather than sacred, effect.

Simultaneous switches between both tempo and instrumentation left the Sinfonia from Cantata no. 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, feeling rather disjointed, as we swung relentlessly between the warmth of the strings to the comparatively twee sound of a harpsichord with an organ’s pipes. Any amount of skill in its playing couldn’t quite reconcile me to the strange structure of this piece, but I suppose it’s good to be reminded that Bach ranges so far beyond the familiar...

Bach's Mass no. 3 in G minor benefited throughout from a much better performance from Mobley, his countertenor now better controlled, his lovely softness unimpaired. In the Kyrie, Brook took masterful control, with Bevan and Boden paling into insignificance at his side. It was not until the intricate, fascinating Gloria that Bevan made her mark on the score with her characteristically clear, lyrical, penetrating soprano. This Gloria has an extraordinary, mesmeric structure, with all four voices echoing, reflecting and competing with one another by turns, creating a blissful whole of balanced, multifaceted sound. Brook delivered a splendid Gratias agimus with warm vigour, while Mobley’s now firmer sense of purpose produced a very pleasing Domine Fili unigenite. Best of all, Samuel Boden’s classic, appealing tenor finally shone out in Qui tollis peccata mundi, with perfect projection and diction enabled by supple strength right through his range, in an account at once sincere and affecting: a talent to watch. A rousing final chorus, stupendously well played by the orchestra, ensured we closed on a note of joyous, exuberant beauty; but the lack of any proper solo soprano aria for Bevan, at any point, was the final surprise.