sat 24/06/2017

BBC Proms: The English Concert and Choir, Bicket | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: The English Concert and Choir, Bicket

BBC Proms: The English Concert and Choir, Bicket

The Choir of the English Concert ensures this was no hair-shirted B Minor Mass

Soprano Joélle Harvey: a strong Proms debut

What better work for Harry Bicket and The English Concert to perform at the Proms than Bach's joyous Mass in B Minor. Joyous firstly because of the music itself, with its vast stylistic and emotional range. Joyous secondly because, despite the intense scholarship to which Bach and his music have been subjected over the years, its genesis remains unusually shrouded in mystery for such a major work.

While it seems likely that Bach viewed the work as a summation and climax of his life's music, that's about as much as we can guess. There's no evidence to suggest that he performed it as a whole during his lifetime, or even that he intended it to be performed as such. The very title, Mass in B Minor, was a 19th-century addition. As a result, you can almost picture the ghost of the great Lutheran composer chortling away as crack teams of Bach scholars have sat scratching their heads over the decades. Thankfully though, we don't have to have all the historical is and ts dotted and crossed in order to appreciate this extraordinary music. In fact, in a perverse way, the mystery kind of adds to the enjoyment.

There was a deeply satisfying balance of speeds and moods

Last night was certainly high on enjoyment, with Bicket (pictured below) and his musicians producing a beautifully judged period interpretation that had true soul, rather than simply scholarly fervour, at its core. The warmth and fullness of their overall sound was the first delight, made possible by Bicket’s employment of the Choir of the English Concert for the many glorious chorus sections. No hair-shirted, one-voice-to-a-part choruses here. Then there were the tempi. Rather than the uniform lickety-spit pace favoured by some period bands, there was a deeply satisfying balance of speeds and moods, the steady gravitas of movements such as the opening Kyrie matched by absolute explosions of all-out high-speed buoyancy. The only place where the latter felt slightly uncomfortable was in the Cum Sanctus Spiritu, where dance-like exuberance became a little bit too much of a danger-flecked gallop to the finishing line.

Second soprano Carolyn Sampson slipped effortlessly in to replace the originally billed Malin Christensson, and her playful Laudamus te became one of the soloist highlights of the evening. Another was the poised beauty of countertenor Iestyn Davies' beseeching Agnus Dei. Soprano Joélle Harvey made a strong Proms debut, her duet with Davies particularly full of Italianate baroque flair and grace.

However, back to the choir, because the B Minor Mass stands or falls not on the soloists but on the chorus numbers, and last night the Choir of The English Concert ensured it stood tall. Rich and expansive one moment, crisply exuberant the next before dropping down to gossamer-light tenderness, their multi-faceted performance was a triumph not just of technique and choral cohesion, but crucially also of emotional expression. The intensity of their readings in the Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus left no doubt that the epicentre of the work had been reached.

The orchestra was on equally brilliant form, everyone flitting seamlessly between the many juxtapositions of wildly differing styles, and the horns particularly stepping up to their starring florid roles with bright, fearless warmth. As B Minor Mass performances go, this one was life-affirming in the extreme.

The choir's performance was a triumph not just of technique and cohesion, but crucially also of emotional expression

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