For a composer of such undeniable genius and widespread popularity, it is strange that there aren’t too many opportunities to hear J.S. Bach’s cantatas performed live in concert. And although they were the composer’s bread-and-butter works – his post as Konzertmeister at the court of Weimar saw him composing one per month, a figure that was to increase upon his arrival at Leipzig – they are certainly worthy of wider dissemination. This is a fact recognised by those at the Royal Academy of Music, whose odyssey through Bach’s cantatas is now in its fourth year. Under the watchful eye of Sir Ralph Kohn, the series’ instigator and benefactor, and the baton-less hands of Iain Ledingham, students from the Academy perform monthly Sunday concerts made up entirely of Bach’s choral works. And what a wonderful way to start a Sunday afternoon they provide.

Students of the RAM with Iain Leidingham
Students of the RAM with Iain Leidingham

On the programme for this, the first concert of 2012, were three cantatas: BWVs 12, 54 and 187. The first two of these constitute early works, written in Weimar to words of a distinctly sombre and predominantly sorrowful tone. BWV 12, ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ (‘Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing’) sets a mood befitting its title by extensive use of the plaintive oboe – that most popular musical purveyor of sadness and nostalgia – both in the opening sinfonia and in the ensuing aria obbligato for alto. Although the Academy Baroque Orchestra made a felicitously rich sound, shunning a more austere interpretation of ‘period’ music, I felt the performance was a just a little rough around the edges: intonation took a while to settle, and the ensemble playing rocked a little as the oboe melody twisted over the accompanying strings. These small problems were steadied, however, by the entrance of the chorus, who sang confidently and clearly throughout.

If the beginning of the concert was good but failed to enthral, it was the arrival of countertenor soloist Leo Tomita that provided the spark that the performance really required. Tomita engaged the audience by sheer expressivity, never once selling the conviction of words and music short, nor languishing unnecessarily in over-cooked emotion. Following his aria, bass Andri Róbertsson and tenor Rupert Charlesworth sang an aria apiece, the mood swinging from sorrow to joy as Róbertsson sang of his dedication to and trust in Christ: sentiments which were affirmed by all in the cantata’s final chorale.

The orchestra was pared down to its bare bones for BWV 54, ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’ (‘Stand firm against all sinning’), leaving only one desk each of violins and violas, plus the indispensible continuo quartet of harpsichord, organ, cello and double bass. The resulting sound was one of increased austerity and clarity. This effect portrayed the nature of the cantata’s words well, concerned as they are with the recognition and avoidance of sin. Unfortunately, though, it also highlighted a weakness in the ensemble. The string players were clearly very confident in their own solo melodies, which constantly overlapped in chromatic, dramatic counterpoint; however, they were less successful in switching to a more secondary role when accompanying Tomita in his two arias. At these moments they seemed to lack the fluidity and communication that comes only with extensive ensemble rehearsal time; despite their abundant talent and ample individual practice, the performers could not find that musical telepathy that comes only through many, many hours spent grafting as a group.

Having said this, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this was anything but a highly accomplished and successful performance: BWV 187, ‘Es wartet alles auf Dich’ (‘These wait all upon Thee’) proved that it really was. This cantata was written twelve years after the previous two we had heard, and the composer’s extra maturity shines through in his utterly masterful use of counterpoint. The performers, too, seemed to have grown (as well as multiplied) for the epic opening chorus – or perhaps they’d been saving themselves for it. The tension created by this huge and ingenious movement was gently appeased by a simple bass recitative followed by a delightful alto aria. After another aria from Róbertsson, soprano Ruth Jenkins made a belated appearance for the final aria and recitative. Beautiful voice aside, rarely have I heard a soprano with such perfect diction.

Despite the fact that this was intended to be a secular performance of these cantatas, as the final chorale drew to a close I couldn’t help questioning whether one can ever have a secular performance of any Bach work. The music is so spiritual, so nourishing for the soul. Perhaps the early Sunday scheduling helped, but it was witnessing such music performed by such talented young people that made me feel, as I emerged blinking from the Duke’s Hall, that I’d just experienced something transformative, something beautiful – something sacred.