Friday’s two Proms had a theme running through them: Resurrection, Easter and Ascension. I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about listening to Bach’s small-scale oratorios after Mahler’s mighty “Resurrection” Symphony, but I needn’t have worried. Compared to Mahler’s angst and doubt in the symphony, Bach’s unwavering Christian faith was reassuring. Both works began and ended with joyous and jubilant choral music celebrating Christ’s resurrection and ascension, although Bach also explored weaker human emotions in the arias.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The two oratorios Bach composed for these important Christian feast days have been relatively neglected. They are not the grand oratorios of the Handelian type or the Italian dramatic type, but are enlarged versions of his church cantatas (comprised of choruses, recitatives, arias and chorales). The difference with the cantatas is that Bach incorporates the biblical narrative in these works, which is probably why they were specifically called oratorios. Also, most of the music constitutes reworkings from his earlier works.

John Eliot Gardiner had augmented his period-instrument ensemble English Baroque Soloists in consideration of the vastness of the venue: eighteen violins, seven violas, six cellos and three double basses. With these forces, he managed to achieve power without losing their delicate and articulate playing or the intimacy of their ensemble. In fact, it was often the really intimate arias with woodwind solo obbligato that were most effective in this hall, such as the tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” (with flutes and strings) in the Easter Oratorio and the soprano aria “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” in the Ascention Oratorio, amazingly scored for flute, oboe and violas, without any cellos and basses.

As usual with Gardiner’s Bach performances, the vocal soloists were drawn from the chorus. One could say that their voices are perhaps not overtly soloistic (which is obviously Gardiner’s intention) but they certainly blended well with each other and with the instrumental solos. In particular, there was some beautiful duo recitatives between the tenor Nicholas Mulroy and the bass Peter Harvey, both Gardiner’s trusted and regular collaborators, and Harvey’s clarity of diction was especially notable. Mulroy also sang the role of the Evangelist in the Ascension Oratorio with eloquence.

It was also interesting to see how Gardiner varied the position of the vocal soloists: sometimes they sang in their choir seats, sometimes at the back of the orchestra on a raised platform, sometimes at the front of the stage, and so on. No doubt it was for acoustical and ensemble reasons, and it was mostly effective – although in the alto aria “Saget mir geschwinde” (Easter Oratorio) which lay quite low for the mezzo Meg Bragle, I felt her voice didn’t quite carry (at least to where I was sitting).

There were also outstanding contributions from the woodwind soloists, notably the flute (Rachel Beckett) in the soprano aria “Seele, deine Spezereien” (Easter Oratorio) where she and the soprano Hannah Morrison blended with each other beautifully. The oboe (Michael Niesemann) shone in the second movement of the overture of the Easter Oratorio which was probably reworked from a lost concerto. The strings played with warmth and articulate phrasing, especially evident in the alto aria “Ach, bleibe doch” – poignantly sung by Bragle – which is an earlier and longer version of the Agnus Dei in the B minor Mass. Furthermore, the trumpets and timpani added festive colour in the outer choral movements. The Monteverdi Choir (36 singers) sang with vibrancy and disciplined ensemble, bringing out the choral texture with clarity. Above all, Gardiner, as always, achieved the grace and dance-like lilt of Bach’s music, and so even after two Proms, I left the Royal Albert Hall with a spring in my step.

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