Nothing is quite as addictive as the polished sound of period instruments. It has (I imagine!) the same stimulating effects on the brain as crack cocaine. This wonderful aesthetic gloss is not always enough however, to conceal blemishes on an imperfect performance, especially when the repertoire being performed is as renowned as Bach.

Sophie Bevan © Sussie Ahlburg
Sophie Bevan
© Sussie Ahlburg
It was with this fresh and pure sound that the audience was enticed by the Academy of Ancient Music. The Mass in G minor started dark and brooding, the chromatic chords being stated simply with a dry matter-of-fact-ness. On the whole, melodic lines were shaped well and with a clear sense of direction. On occasion the nature of the phrasing became a little laboured: in both the Kyrie and Domine Fili, each appoggiatura was given the exact same amount of emphasis. In the Gratias each phrase segment of the ritornello was given a similar surge, resulting in a slightly seasick effect.

The soloists, much like the orchestra, were beyond reproach in terms of tone quality, but there were at times feelings of insecurity. Both Nicky Spence and Iestyn Davies struggled with breath control in their respective movements. In the Qui tollis both Spence and the oboe soloist struggled at times with intonation, although it must be noted that Frank de Bruine ornamented his obbligato line wonderfully. The movement perhaps could have benefited from more interaction between singer and instrumentalist; they felt a little like two separate entities rather than two lines entwined.  Roderick Williams offered sheer perfection in the Gratias.

The moody mass was counterpointed with the more optimistic Brandenburg Concerto no 2 in F major. David Blackadder’s astounding control in the trumpet’s higher register was particularly impressive, and his sparkling tone lit up the Albert Hall. The texture was fluid; important contrapuntal lines rose to the surface when deemed important and ducked out of the way to make room for others. Each soloist was given enough space so that they could project well without forcing their sound.

It was in the Brandenburg that the wonderful musicality of those in supporting roles came to the fore. The continuo gave basslines voluptuous shapes in the middle movement, and in the final movement upper strings gave middle textures a lyric quality. There was only one damning moment of instability where an effort was made to push the tempo forward. It was sadly a little uncoordinated and so result sounded like rushing. Still it was lovely to see Pavlo Beznosiuk direct this item, and he did so with real expertise.

The night brightened further, and chipper became exultant in the Magnificat in D major. There was no shortage of spirit and character, but the choral numbers suffered from a fundamental disunity. Mismatchings of articulations and rhythms hindered the fugue in Sicut locutus est. Omnes generationes at first burst through powerfully, but the energy provided by the initial impact proved to be unsustainable. The ensemble was messy, leading to a cloying of the texture.

Solos in the Magnificat were sublime. Sophie Bevan sang with supreme serenity and control in Quia respexit humilitatem, mesmerising all with her incredible sense of line. Deposuit potentes was mightily heroic, and the strings responded to Spence’s powerful tenor with biting articulation. Williams’ rich, velvety baritone was met with the chamber organ’s heavenly figured bass realisations. Impressive voicings were subtle, sitting right at the top of the texture. Esurientes implevit bovis was supremely charming, with airy textures lightened by pizzicato basses. This lightness allowed Davies’ golden countertenor to shine through with ease, though he struggled to support the two sopranos in his lower register in Suscepit Israel.

Throughout the concert there always seemed to be areas of slack in faster, more active passages. The Magnificat’s Omnes generationes became obscured as various factions of the choir started to fall behind in their semiquavers. Both the first and last movements of the Brandenburg fell victim to a lag in momentum when semiquaver scalic motions transferred to the continuo. It was a shame that the potential energy that these moments contained could not be fully realised in the same manner that the Cum Sancto Spiritu of the Mass had been. Both the second violins and trumpets should be commended for their accuracy and drive.

The elegance of historical performance has won many devotees, and it is little wonder that this once avant-garde performance practice has now been absorbed into more mainstream classical traditions. Unfortunately these attractive aural opiates are not always enough to divert attention from a concert’s more basic weaknesses.