Between them, Mozart and Bach wrote what is to my mind some of the happiest music in the repertoire, and the works performed in this concert by Northern Sinfonia and Chorus reminded us that great music doesn’t have to be solemn, or deliver a serious message – sometimes it’s about having as much fun as possible.

© Mark Savage
© Mark Savage

Gillian Keith set the scene with an exuberant performance of Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, which she sang with a decidedly cheeky twinkle. Originally written for the Italian castrato Venanziano Rauzzini when Mozart was still only seventeen, it’s a piece that has to be sung with an immense sense of fun, and soloist and orchestra under the direction of Simon Halsey delivered plenty of that. The quieter inner movements provided a nice few moments of calm before bursting into the famous Alleluja: Gillian Keith sang the recitative-like Fulget amica dies with firm conviction, and the Tu, virginum corona was simple and lyrical. A careful amount of vibrato by Keith added a dramatic sheen, but also, I suspect, covered a few blurs in the long runs. However, the unaccompanied passages were delightful and her top C at the end was delivered with panache.

The first version of Bach’s Magnificat was composed not long after the Brandenburg concertos, and the Italian style perfected by Vivaldi and Handel is very much in evidence in both works. Northern Sinfonia gave a full-blooded performance of the first Brandenburg concerto, making a nice contrast to the academic precision that is often applied to Bach’s music. Bradley Creswick’s violin solo in the Adagio had a beautifully relaxed and lazy feel to it, and I enjoyed his ornamentation in the Allegro that followed. I thought though that the piece could have benefitted from being conducted, instead of directed from the first violin, as there were a few awkward corners when the timing was not all together. There were also a few wobbly moments in the horn parts, but the oboe and bassoon trio were magnificent.

The woodwind section also shone in the Magnificat, for Bach excels in writing beautiful instrumental lines to accompany his vocal solos, using the oboe in Quia respexit and a flute duet for Esurientes implevit bones. These all balanced well with the soloists, and Louisa Tuck’s cello continuo accompaniment to Quia fecit was full of character. The five solo singers were all excellent, but there were some problems with positioning: I couldn’t see Gillian Keith at all during Quia Respexit as she was standing behind the orchestra and the conductor was exactly in my line of sight, but the sound wasn’t affected, and during the alto and tenor duet Et Misericordia the two soloists were straining so much to see the conductor that they looked like a couple who’d just had a row. Nathan Vale’s tenor solo Deposuit potentes was hugely exciting, and Louise Innes showed off a glorious alto voice in Esurientes implevit bones that really blossomed on the lower notes.

Despite all the excellent solo singing and orchestral playing, the stars of the evening were undoubtedly the Northern Sinfonia Chorus. David Lang’s 40-part motet i never was premiered by them in 2010, and was written to accompany a performance of Tallis’s 40-part Spem in Alium. Lang’s text is a clever précis of the same psalm that Tallis set, removing specific references to God and stressing our humility before everyone. The piece is constructed from repeated cells of sound that are passed around the 8 choirs in little bursts of colour. All 40 voices were clearly delineated, and the rapidly repeated words “never” and “remember” were articulated brilliantly – the tenor in choir 5 was particularly noteworthy here – and the sopranos’ high melodic phrases on the words “how low I am” were beautiful. The piece was full of exquisite dissonances, and this was an accomplished performance.

The full chorus in the Magnificat were at their best. This was Simon Halsey’s last concert with them in the role of Principal Conductor, and was a fitting tribute to the work he has done with them. Omnes Generationes was sung with great energy, and was a pleasure to listen to, every word punched out, with a beautifully clear sound. In the fugue Sicut locutus est and in the opening of the Gloria every vocal line was perfectly distinct. The very opening Magnificat phrase was unfortunately weak, especially after the dazzling trumpets in the introduction, but the piece gathered momentum, so by the time the opening music returned at the end of the Gloria it was bursting with joy and provided a wonderful climax to a concert that, above all, was about the sheer, unalloyed pleasure that comes from beautiful music.

****1