Tonight’s programme was a real treat for Bach enthusiasts: one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world performing two of the most popular concertos, joined by Carolyn Sampson for two heart-wrenching cantatas for soprano and obbligato flute. We started with Cantata 209, “Non sa che sia dolore”. The story behind this cantata is something of a mystery – no-one knows when or why Bach wrote it, or if indeed he was the composer. It may have been composed for Bach’s friend Matthias Gesner, who was born near the town of Ansbach which is referred to in the anonymous text. Alternatively, it may have marked the departure of a naval officer, hence the allusions to a sea voyage.

ASMF © Chris Christodoulou
ASMF
© Chris Christodoulou

Despite its murky origins, the music begins with a sprightly sinfonia featuring tonight’s flute soloist, Michael Cox. The imitative sections between flute and orchestra and the echo effects created were beautifully managed, and the phrasing was crisp and clean in the virtuosic runs. Despite playing on modern instruments, the group was well balanced and found space in the texture for the solo instrument to come through. Carolyn Sampson was extremely natural and expressive on stage and the first recitative was wonderfully fresh. The purity of her vocal tone ensured that each suspension had a delightful piquancy. Bach’s vocal arias are technically demanding and require evenness across the range as well as flexibility and dexterity to manage the often quite instrumental writing. Sampson had all these qualities in abundance, making the large leaps seem easy and providing an instrumental quality of tone to match the flute. Occasionally the text was lost in the rich orchestral sound, but the intent was always clear and the military feel of the central section had a lovely flavour. I felt the second recitative was a little restrained and could have had more emotional intensity, but the final aria made up for this with stunning coloratura and an impressive display of vocal dexterity and technique, while never losing its endearing naturalness.

The stage was reset for the first concerto, for flute, violin and harpsichord. This combination was a delightful one, with Bach’s wonderful imitative textures being displayed to their full effect. The virtuosic harpsichord writing in this work was truly outstandingly played, and it was a shame that Stephen Devine wasn’t positioned slightly more prominently, as again the quieter instrument was occasionally lost in the dense texture of the modern band. However, phrasing and articulation from all the players, both solo and orchestral, was exemplary. The second movement was a sweet solo affair, with pizzicato accompaniment from the violin for the graceful flute melody, which was then passed around the solo group.

The second concerto of the evening is possibly one of Bach’s most well-loved works – the Concerto for two violins in D minor. The rich orchestral sound was perfect for this “desert island disc” of a piece, and the soloists were well balanced and wonderfully expressive. Despite playing on modern instruments, their technique was historically informed, with vibrato used as an ornamental feature and a satisfying expansion into the middle of each phrase and every suspension. The clarity of tone was beautiful through the second movement and the whole piece had a lovely lilt.

“Ich habe genug” exists in many different forms. Originally written for bass and oboe, Bach transposed the whole cantata up to E minor for a soprano voice and replaced the oboe obbligato with flute in around 1731. There is also a version for alto, for which the first aria was originally conceived. The first aria started at a lovely lilt and I was mesmerised by the interweaving flute and vocal lines. The text of the cantata is again anonymous, referring to Mary’s presentation of Christ in the temple and the old man’s joyful vision of imminent death and salvation. These emotions were beautifully portrayed by Sampson – the second recitative was fresh and bright, throwing off the weight of death expressed in the first aria. Here we felt the power of Sampson’s dramatic capability and the stunningly simple “Schlummert ein” lullaby that followed was a beautiful contrast. The maternal quality changed again for the brave acceptance of fate expressed in the final recitative before a sparkling final aria demonstrated the extraordinary technical capability of every musician on stage. This was a breathtaking display of Bach’s compositional and dramatic prowess, performed by consummate musicians.