It can’t be often that one of the world’s pre-eminent Bach scholar-interpreters teams up with one of the world’s most famous period instrument ensembles to give a concert dedicated to one of the world’s most celebrated composers in one of the world’s most renowned acoustics. Such a combination of exemplars makes for an eye-catching promotional poster and, more importantly, an ear-catching performance. This was a fact not lost on the programmers of BBC Radio 3, who arrived at St George’s with their microphones, techies and radio-faces to broadcast this and subsequent concerts from the Bristol Baroque Festival of Music. Nor was it lost on Bristol’s public, who turned up en masse to fill the ex-Methodist church with eager ears, eyes and audience etiquette. They were not to be disappointed.

John Butt
John Butt

The concert featured two of those protean and evergreen concerti grossi known as the Brandenburgs, each coupled with a cantata making use of similar instrumentation. The contrast between concerto and cantata was interesting, if at times a little jarring, the boundless virtuosity and exuberance of the former clashing with the inwardness and poise of the latter. But then, such contrasts perfectly encapsulate the German Baroque in all its contradictory glory.

We began with the Brandenburg Concerto no. 4 in G, its piping and cooing recorders making for a sprightly and joyous opening. Every time I hear recorders in this sort of music, I think what an unfairly hard time they get in general. Derision and disdain at their simplicity and seeming lack of versatility stems from generations of “ABC for recorder” primary school failures, but here they showed their timbral worth in their polyphonic intertwinings with both ensemble and solo violin. Alison Bury’s violin was ever so slightly smudgy in the first couple of her solo sections, but gained clarity in time for those extraordinarily rapid scalic passages towards the middle of this first movement. In the Andante the pair of recorders showed a far more melancholy, mournful side, with Bach exploiting their fragile lower registers. The ensuing fugal Presto returned the mood to one of incandescent virtuosity, with the violin again flaunting its exhibitionist capacities, including some pretty incomprehensibly spasmodic bowing dexterity. Directed unobtrusively by Butt at the harpsichord, the music sparkled, though never dazzlingly so.

The instrumental soloists retired to the mid-stage ranks for Cantata no. 161, “Komm, du süße Todesstunde”, their positions at the fore being taken by four singers from the Choir of the Enlightenment. However, it was not with a chorus but a countertenor aria that the cantata began. Tim Mead, sporting a side-parting you could surf along, sang the sweet death-desiring Lutheran text with arresting beauty. Tenor Stuart Jackson’s aria was rather heavy and uninspiring in comparison, though the ensuing chorus was enlivened by the dancing recorder lines. The cantata ended with a highly chromatic and wonderful harmonisation of that most well-known of chorale melodies, known as the “Passion chorale”.

During the interval John Butt donned his academic’s hat to contribute to an excellent discussion hosted by Radio 3’s lovable Tom Service. However, it was with performer’s proverbial headgear wedged firmly onto his head that he took his seat at the harpsichord as soloist – alongside Bury and flautist Lisa Beznosiuk – in the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D. The piece starts conventionally enough, the antiphonal exchanges between violin and flute held together by the spiky, brittle sound-glue of the solo harpsichord. But then something extraordinary happens. The harpsichordist erupts into the wildest of cadenzas, plummeting to uncharted harmonic depths and whizzing to the highest heights of vertiginous virtuosity. Sounding at times like some mad version of Tetris (level 200), this solo is truly flabbergasting, and it was with reassuring musical relief that the familiar ritornello asserted itself to bring the movement to a close. Things calm down in the Affettuoso, the three solo instruments, with their vastly different timbres, interacting with melancholy grace, before a life-affirming Allegro brings the work to a close.

Cantata no. 9, “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her”, began with a chorale fantasia positively brimming with joyous energy. This is more than could be said of soprano Anna Dennis, who frankly looked bored with her cantus firmus role. Jackson improved in his aria with gorgeous obbligato violin, and George Humphreys was impressively expressive in his recitatives. But it was Mead, again, who shone in his beautiful duet with a (slightly) more interested Dennis, Bach’s writing for two voices being as pure and delightful as ever. An assured chorale brought an excellent concert to an end.

At the start of this review I outlined the contributing factors that promised such an exceptional concert. I didn’t feel that in performance, the concert was more than the sum of its parts; but those parts were of such high quality that the result was nonetheless fantastic: a true delight.

****1