There isn’t much, for me, that can beat J.S. Bach’s orchestral music for pure, uncomplicated joy; it’s music in which happiness and beauty bubble out of every bar. This was the Bach that I first listened to as a child, long before I discovered the probing complexities of his sacred music, and I have revelled in the opportunity to enjoy the four orchestral suites and the two violin concertos which have formed the backbone of Laurence Cummings’s week long Bach residency with Royal Northern Sinfonia.

Matthew Brook © Richard Shymansky
Matthew Brook
© Richard Shymansky

The series concluded last night with the first and second suites (BWV1066 & 1067), and the Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042, with the delightful Coffee Cantata completing a selection of Bach’s more unusual vocal settings. Both suites were marked by gracefully luxurious playing from the strings and excellent work from the wind soloists. The trio of two oboes and bassoon in the first suite were nicely matched – the two oboists, Steven Hudson and Michael O’Donnell bouncing lightly off each other, whilst bassoonist Stephen Reay kept his busy bass lines smoothly ticking away beneath them. Flautist Eilidh Gillespie brought a soft airiness to the Second Suite, floating lightly above the meaty strings, particularly in the final Badinerie, and a few carefully deployed ornamental runs added to the lightness of her solo line.

The faster dance movements in both suites had considerable spirit – heavy basses gave a big kick to the swinging Forlane of the First Suite, and the Bourrées in the second were an exciting gallop. The Polonaise of the second suite had a stately grandeur without being slow, with a particularly silky Double section from Eilidh Gillespie and cellist Lousia Tuck, and the long aching flute notes lent sensuousness to the Sarabande.

The Adagio of the E major Violin Concerto was a highlight of the evening, the gently rocking of the orchestra soothing amid all the jollity of the rest of the programme, whilst Bradley Creswick’s violin solo sang out the gorgeous melody. The faster movements were jaunty and forceful but at times they felt as if everyone was making too much effort and this resulted in little slips and a sense of discomfort, particularly in the first movement.

The one musical style of the Baroque to which Bach made no contribution was opera, although his majestic Passions with their rich insights into the human soul have been cited as an idea of what he might have achieved had he written grand, tragic opera. The cantata BWV211, Schweight Stille, better known as the “Coffee Canata”, shows brilliantly that Bach could have equally well turned his hand to comic opera. Written for the Leipzig music society Collegium Musicum, it’s a miniature drama about a girl who won’t give up the new-fangled vice of coffee, despite all her father’s pleading.

Baritone Matthew Brook deployed a rich range of facial expressions as the exasperated father Schlendrian, whilst Mhairi Lawson as his daughter Liesgen stalked around the platform, tossing her head and pouting and her distinctive rolled 'r' added an extra layer of coquettishness. Lawson’s aria praising the delights of coffee was an absolute treat, her solo line lightly flirtatious against Eilidh Gillespie’s more serious sounding flute solo. Matthew Brook, meanwhile, brought a comic heaviness to his runs, aided by a characterful continuo section. Excellent diction from both singers meant that I could enjoy the action without having to peer at the text, and allowed me to appreciate some of Bach’s fun word painting such as the little harpsichord sparkles when Schendrian threatens to withhold gold and silver ribbons from his wayward daughter.

Tenor Daniel Norman provided the narration, creating the coffee house atmosphere of the original performance by plunging straight in over the audience applause with his opening lines “Keep quiet, don’t chatter and pay attention”. I couldn’t help wondering whether Bach was making fun of himself here, for the mock-serious recitative of the tenor narration against the lighter style of the arias called to mind his Passion Evangelists. The cantata ends with a lively chorus for all three voices, with Eilidh Gillespie adding extra bounce on the solo flute line.  

These three Royal Northern Sinfonia concerts with Laurence Cummings have shown Bach at his most cheerful, and this performance of the Coffee Cantata should have dispelled any lingering doubts about whether or not the great serious musician had a sense of humour. 

***11