Back to Bach

Proms 19 & 22 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3
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The Independent Culture

It fell to the ever more saintly looking Sir Roger Norrington to celebrate the B minor Mass last Friday, the actual date of Bach's death 250 years ago; and on television, too. Realising that the decision to use larger forces than usual might make us doubt his sanity, Norrington argued in the programme book for what he called "a 'second generation' of historical performance practice".

It fell to the ever more saintly looking Sir Roger Norrington to celebrate the B minor Mass last Friday, the actual date of Bach's death 250 years ago; and on television, too. Realising that the decision to use larger forces than usual might make us doubt his sanity, Norrington argued in the programme book for what he called "a 'second generation' of historical performance practice".

Friday's account - prefaced by a homily from Norrington and a performance of Johann Christoph Bach's motet, Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf! - was certainly extremely persuasive. The conductor almost surrounded himself with the 53 players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and was in close touch with his solo singers and the 51-strong Choir of the Enlightenment. Pretty brisk speeds proved unproblematic. So did the fact that the solo sections - a substantial portion of the whole - were accompanied only by a small inner circle of strings and organ, plus whatever obbligato instrument was involved.

Some find Norrington's highlighting methods overdone, even egocentric. For me, only the staccatos in the Kyrie seemed excessive; many wonderful moments resulted from his carefully considered dynamic profiling. He had excellent instrumental soloists and continuo players too numerous to mention, and a front-rank team of vocal soloists - Dominique Labelle, Annette Markert, Mark Padmore, Alastair Miles - among whom the counter-tenor David Daniels stood out. Daniels's naturalness of expression and ability not only to project but to shape phrases at all registers (low as well as in his famous high range) made him a joy to listen to. And the big choral numbers were thrilling vindications of the decision to deploy such relatively large forces in tandem with "period" practice.

Not even Ton Koopman would be likely to argue that his reconstruction of Bach's lost St Mark Passion puts this work in the same league as the sublime B minor Mass. With fewer choruses and arias than either the St Matthew or St John Passions, any version of the St Mark is bound to offer fewer purely musical rewards. There is musicological contention here aplenty, too; the programme book commendably clarified Koopman's sources, unlike the booklet notes to the new CD of his version.

Koopman's assembly job and composition of the recitatives appear to match his skills as, simultaneously here, conductor and organist. All place a high value on gut reaction and immediacy; the results here were at least sometimes captivating. The singers (I counted 21) in the main Amsterdam Baroque Choir (briefly supplemented by 16 boy trebles from Salisbury Cathedral) at least get a few juicy choruses and plenty of chorales.

But with all the continuo work to be done (and it was well done), the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra's full complement of 23 players is given little to do; with some variable solo singing, the evening seemed a long one. Christoph Prégardien nicely varied his account of the Evangelist's role, however; and the Christus, Peter Kooy, revealed a nutty timbre and a ready response to Bach's, and Koopman's, emotional demands.

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 19 today at 2pm

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