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December 30, 2013 5:38 pm
On first impression it seemed a chocolate-box confection: a selection of uplifting instrumental pieces sprinkled between festive cantatas – all composed by a certain J.S. Bach. But what added zest to this feel-good pre-Christmas programme, lovingly presented by the King’s Consort period instrument orchestra and choir, was the inclusion of two sacred vocal works by the German composer Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as director of music at Leipzig’s famous church of St Thomas.
In recording and in concert, Kuhnau’s name rarely pops up, and this performance raised the question: why? Kuhnau was highly influential, bridging the gap between the 17th-century German composer Heinrich Schütz and Bach. And, as this programme demonstrated, he shared the latter’s versatility, creating music full of imaginative effects, warmth and a sense of directness.
The works presented here display those very virtues, particularly with the King’s Consort’s advocacy. “Wie Schön Leuchtet Der Morgenstern” – Kuhnau’s rich setting of Philipp Nicolai’s 1597 Christmas hymn – showcased the group’s attention to textual nuance, most notably in the case of the solo tenor James Oxley. Kuhnau’s inventive sacred concerto “O Heilige Zeit”, which followed, brought sensuous solos from Robin Blaze and Rebecca Outram, and solid, if less inspiring contributions from Edward Grint, along with some creamy ensemble singing.
Similar strengths emerged in the more familiar repertoire too. Bach’s Christmas Cantata “Gelobet Seist Du, Jesu Christ”, BWV 91, spotlighted Julie Cooper’s bell-like soprano and Blaze’s sinuous countertenor, put to most mesmerising effect when joined together in duet. And in “Wachet Auf! Ruft uns die Stimme”, BWV 140, Bach’s famous Advent Cantata, the significance of each line was made palpable: the urgency that Oxley teased out of the words “Wake up, rouse yourselves”; the chorus’s jubilation on “No ear has ever heard such joy.”
Galvanised by Robert King’s characterful conducting, the orchestra responded with rhythmic bite, providing a solid foundation for the singers in the vocal works, and commanding the attention in the purely instrumental ones: the Sinfonia and Concerto from Cantata BWV 35 and the colourful Sinfonia after Cantata BWV 31. This wasn’t a technically spotless performance, but it was one of vitality. And it’s refreshing to see an ensemble of professional musicians so obviously enjoying themselves.
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