Sentiments for New Year’s Day have changed little over the best part of 300 years. In Bach’s cantata Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm, most probably first performed on January 1 1729, the bass soloist calls for protection from “fire, plague and risk of war” throughout the year and offers a prayer for “everlasting joy and health”.
It would be hard to arrange a more apposite start to a festival that will last from New Year through to late December. Each year Kings Place chooses one composer to provide a running theme through its programming and this year is the turn of J.S. Bach. There is no particular reason for putting Bach in the spotlight in 2013 – except perhaps that he is not Wagner, Verdi or Britten, whose anniversaries are being so exhaustively celebrated everywhere else.
Bach Unwrapped comprises around 70 events, this opening programme starting out with one of the Christmas cantatas, Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt. Modest in scale, with no opening chorus (probably to give the boys in Bach’s choir a Christmas break), it was performed here simply by four solo voices – Elin Manahan Thomas, Sally Bruce-Payne, Nicholas Mulroy and Jimmy Holliday – and a handful of players from the period-instrument group Florilegium. The contrast between Thomas’s light soprano and the deeper-toned mezzo of Bruce-Payne worked well in the two arias.
A concerto for oboe d’amore, reconstructed from a harpsichord concerto (works were frequently reassigned and new versions made in Bach’s day), filled the hall, with the generous acoustic adding resonance to the lower sonorities accompanying Alexandra Bellamy’s lively oboe d’amore. The Partita in A Minor for solo flute moved the focus to the mellow playing of Ashley Solomon.
Then the New Year cantata, Gott, wie dein Name, brought an enlarged Florilegium ensemble of a dozen musicians, taking in festive trumpets and drums. This is an uplifting cantata, nicely adorned here by Thomas’s bright aria and the incisive clarity of the four voices in the opening chorus. One section of the score evidently found favour with the composer, as he used it again in the B Minor Mass, a performance of which will close Bach Unwrapped in 12 months’ time.