Bach at King’s Place

King’s Place is in the midst of a ‘Bach Unwrapped’ season, with lots of lovely Bach played and sung by lots of lovely people.  On Saturday night (15th June) it was Carolyn Sampson and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields doing Bach’s two delicious wedding cantatas (Weichet nur and O holder Tag) and a couple of concertos.

Carolyn Sampson was glorious.  Her voice is warm, rich and pure – quite a rare combination.  Her stage manner was also warm:  she really looked as though she was enjoying herself, and her facial expressions were almost non-verbal programme notes.  Lovely.

The same cannot be said for her accompanists.  The ASMF was a complete shower.  There were moments, for example the last movement of O holder Tag, where they sounded on the brink of collapse (even Sampson didn’t manage to disguise a look of concern).  Their tempi were rushed and rather too flexible for comfort.  Their performance of the violin and oboe concerto (which they played in D minor and not C, as advertised)  sounded like a copy of someone else’s interpretation, and the A minor violin concerto was work-a-day.  It’s as if the ASMF knew that these concertos were merely fillers. (They even looked bored.)  The soloists, the oboist Christopher Cowie and violinist Tomo Keller, were technically proficient but unexciting, and the oboist seemed to be unaware of baroque ornamentation practice.

Indeed, the early music revolution (which is now 50 years old) seems to have passed the whole orchestra by.  The continuo cello was dreadful.  In recitative, continuo notes are often written as sustained minims or semibreves. This does not, however, mean that you play them like this. And you certainly don’t wallop on the vibrato. The harpsichord was tucked tidily away at the back, and its player just read his music:  consequently, some of the harmonisations were inappropriate, as you really should be listening to what the soloist is doing and responding – continuo playing needs to be a lot more spontaneous. Period instrument bands always place the harpsichord in the sight-line of the soloist for this reason.

Furthermore, the orchestra was too loud.  There were too many of them, and they all played in the string (giving a sustained, loud sound). The ‘ruhet’ of ‘Ruhet hie’ (the second aria of O holder Tag) means ‘rest’:  one might expect a luscious bit of soft playing here – but not a bit of it.   We could hear Carolyn Sampson, but at times only just, and we felt that she was singing to her maximum all the time.  O holder Tag is so virtuosic and complex that rushed speeds do it an injustice, even if the singer is a masterful as Sampson.

Sampson and the ASMF are doing another Bach cantata concert in September.  Sampson will be wonderful, and it will be worth going just to hear her.  Let’s hope the ASMF bucks up between now and then and learns not just how to play Bach but how to enjoy it.

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