Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner, Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 27 December 2005
Musically, it delivers an experience of Bach close to perfection. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists present the cantatas in a way that is absorbing as well as historically informed, starting with the parade of vocal soloists who wander out from within the choir.
This Advent offering featured three cantatas, the Magnificat in its extended Christmas version and, as a bonus, a little aria drawn from the ducal birthday piece that was found in Weimar only this year and entrusted to Gardiner to introduce to the world.
You could reshuffle the formula almost endlessly and come up with a thrilling concert. The cantatas here were highly contrasted, but they all featured at least one stunner of an aria, decked out with the ecstatic interactions of voice and solo instruments that offset their lithe and buoyant choruses. Cantata 40, for all its celebratory surface, keeps proclaiming its aggressive intentions towards "Hell's very serpent", and the music reflects them in details that are edgy as much as florid until it collapses into an exhausted chorale. Two horns gave it muscle, playing first from the balcony and returning on stage for a bout of extended virtuosity in support of the bright, forthright tenor Jeremy Budd - one of the evening's solo mainstays along with Clare Wilkinson, who switched smoothly between alto and soprano.
Katharine Fuge had the big moment in Cantata 151, a soft and sinewy aria shared with flute, like the litany of first-time parents safely delivered. Cantata 110 went upbeat with three trumpets, boldly placed at the front of the platform and justifying the promotion with their initial knockout punch and their sustained accuracy and tonal variety.
The chorus came up brilliantly with the musical imagery of laughter Bach asks for, and the bass Matthew Brook had to sound super-confident after the trumpet's prelude, in a very male text translated here as "Wake up, ye members".
As for the new aria, sweetly sung by Elin Manahan Thomas, it is proper Bach in its mix of the eloquent and the catchy. Probably wisely, she sang three of its 12 verses, although they could have risked another round of the instrumental interlude that elaborates on the tune.
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