Wednesday night’s concert was the first in the Orchestra of St John’s Proms at the Ashmolean series of the new year. John Lubbock led the orchestra, the OSJ Ashmolean Voices and soloists Johnny Herford and Louise Wayman through lively performances of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne and J.S. Bach’s Liebster Jesu, mein Verlagen. If this concert is anything to go by, 2013 promises to be a fine year for orchestra and singers alike.

The Orchestra of St John's performing in the Ashmolean © David Smith
The Orchestra of St John's performing in the Ashmolean
© David Smith

The tempi which John Lubbock set for Handel’s secular cantata were well judged, lending the music a sense of momentum (although once or twice teetering on the edge of control). Although the moods which he elucidated were largely fitting, a more doleful tone would have been appreciated for the minore sections of the aria “Come sweetly complying”. The Orchestra of St John’s interacted well, with Lubbock’s baton encouraging their lively dialogue. The contributions of the soloists were especially striking. Chris O’Neal’s oboe solo in “Happy she whose soul contented” was exquisite. His phrasing was beautifully simple, and a hint of vibrato supplemented his round tone. The agile continuo line was also of note, with cellist John Heley’s crisp articulation propelling the line forward and Martin Ennis realising a stylish figured bass on harpsichord. Although the bassoon line appeared to be slightly heavy at points, this was more the fault of the acoustic than that of the player. The poignant pauses and grandeur of the orchestral ritornelli in the final aria brought the cantata to a moving conclusion.

Louise Wayman and Johnny Herford brought out the humorous aspects of this mythological tale. Both singers drew upon their theatrical tendencies for the fast-paced exchanges of the recitatives, with Wayman’s scornful Dafne especially amusing. The solo recitatives proved to be Johnny Herford’s strength: his clear diction, resonant tone and engagement with the audience meant that his performance was utterly charming. At times he dragged behind Lubbock’s beat, forcing him to adjust the tempo. Louise Wayman’s creamy-voiced arias were her speciality, exploring the facets of each phrase with ease. However, a greater evenness of tone across her range was required (especially in “Vain protesting”), and “As a star serenely shining” needed a touch lighter articulation.

Bach’s cantata Liebster Jesu, mein Verlagen brought a more serious tone to the second half. The orchestral introduction to the opening soprano aria captured the sense of pathos, although Lubbock maintained a sense of ebb and flow in the tempo. More sensitivity was needed from the OSJ in order for Wayman’s lingering melismas to be clearly heard. The singers’ voices blended well in the duets, but Wayman appeared more self-assured in her dramatic inflections. Herford seemed less confident in this cantata: his tone seemed slightly too weighty, and a more prolonged sense of line would have benefited the aria. Although the tempo in the bass aria appeared to be a touch faster than was comfortable, Richard Milone’s violin line was generally well executed. Unfortunately, the careful phrasing and well-voiced chords of the OSJ Ashmolean Voices’ chorale was slightly obscured by the OSJ.

Despite a few problems with balance, John Lubbock and the OSJ gave a lively and convincing concert. An enjoyable evening.