Whilst remarks about Bach being the ‘father of Western music’ can seem a little trite, he was undoubtedly a great influencer. From Mozart onwards, many of the great composers – Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann to name a few – have spoken of their reverence for his work. Monday night’s concert, conversely, explored those who influenced Bach, namely Buxtehude, Zelenka and Telemann. Bach was a master at writing in the international cosmopolitan style that was a hallmark of German musical progressivism in the late-Baroque, and was predominantly pioneering in the way he adapted existing ideas and forms. It was, thus, an interesting prospect to explore the contemporaries who had influenced him.

James Gilchrist © Operaomnia
James Gilchrist
© Operaomnia

Tenor James Gilchrist featured prominently, supported by Florilegium, one of the country’s leading early music ensembles, but there was a nice balance of vocal and instrumental music. Florilegium were amorphous, each piece requiring a different combination of instruments but they produced a wonderfully rich sound in all forms.

The concert opened with the opening movement of Bach’s cantata BWV152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn. This movement is one of the few in Bach’s cantatas that has an instrumental fugue and this was brought to life well by the ensemble, the viola da gamba part was played on a piccolo cello by Jennifer Morsches to great effect.

James Gilchrist then took to the stage to perform Buxtehude’s Quemadmodum desiderate Cervus, BuxWV92, an experimental vocal work using a repeating bass line of just two bars in length throughout decorating with a multitude of different figures in the vocal part ranging from lilting slurs to ecstatic melismas. Recordings of this work I had listened to prior to the concert had presented it as a celebratory piece with the use of trumpets and a reasonably fast tempo. This was a more pared-down performance, using just a trio of strings and a more measured pace creating a more meditative mood. This was effective in highlighting Buxtehude’s rich harmonies as well as the warmth and expressiveness of Gilchrist’s voice. The interpretation of works of this era are often largely left to interpretation regarding instrumentation and tempo, often at the composer’s will, and this was a well-judged choice.

Gilchrist remained on stage to perform Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Laudate Pueri Dominum, ZWV82. Zelenka is undoubtedly unduly neglected, his works are rarely programmed in London yet even a brief exploration of recording available display a wealth of creativity particularly harmonic inventiveness and a bold use of chromaticism. The piece was set in three movements, concluding with a fiendishly difficult Amen replete with rapid scalic passages and difficult turns which Gilchrist dispatched with ease. The equally challenging Baroque trumpet part was not carried off with quite as much aplomb however allowances must be made in period instrument performances for the temperament of the instruments involved.

The first half concluded with Telemann’s Concerto a Quatro in A Minor, TWV 43:a3, a rather perfunctory piece. Bach’s admiration and close friendship with Telemann is well known, however, he is widely criticised for the lack of invention in his incredibly vast output. This concerto seemed particularly Italianate, bringing Vivaldi to mind, and was probably not the optimum work to demonstrate a musical link between Bach and Telemann, it was none-the-less performed with character.

The second half opened with Zelenka’s Concerto a 8 in G Major, ZWV 186, a pleasant work scored for oboe, bassoon, two solo violins, strings and continuo. What was particularly engaging about Florilegium’s playing both in this piece and throughout the evening was the character they injected into the music with excellent dynamic control and communication between instrumentalists who were generally always playing one to a part.

Keyboardist Terence Charlston played Buxtehude’s Toccata for keyboard in G Major, BuxWV 165, a brief work consisting of a fugue sandwiched between two elaborate fantasia passages, on the harpsichord. This rare opportunity to hear Buxtehude’s solo keyboard work brought a nice sense of variety to the programme.

The concert concluded with Bach’s Cantata BWV55, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht. This is repertoire that Gilchrist excels in; he is regarded by some as ‘the finest Evangelist of his generation’. His German intonation was clear and precise, and the purity of his voice is the perfect vessel for Bach’s music. He is also an incredibly self-effacing performer, immediately retreating to join the ensemble to receive applause at the end of works, which, in some sense, adds a greater air of authenticity to these performances, implying an understanding that these religious works weren’t written to put the soloist in the spotlight in the way an operatic aria does. Three other vocal soloists joined the stage to perform the closing chorale of this cantata, providing a touching and suitably low-key conclusion to the concert.

This was an evening of highly-satisfying and honest music making.