tue 23/07/2024

London Handel Players, Butterfield, Wigmore Hall review - Bach with bite for Christmas | reviews, news & interviews

London Handel Players, Butterfield, Wigmore Hall review - Bach with bite for Christmas

London Handel Players, Butterfield, Wigmore Hall review - Bach with bite for Christmas

Cathedral-strength sound with an intimate touch

Mighty handful: the London Handel Players©WIGMORE HALL TRUST

We think of the Wigmore Hall as a venue for intimate revelations, but in the right hands it can feel like a stadium. Last night’s all-Bach programme of festive music from the London Handel Players managed to embrace both moods.

On a bill that began with three Advent or Christmas cantatas and finished with a Magnificat that sounded, well, magnificent, characterful solo parts for singers and instrumentalists combined with blazing ensemble climaxes that gave the impression of a stage populated by far more than five voices and 15 players. The outfit led by violinist-director Adrian Butterfield featured plenty of Handel specialists, but this never felt like a coterie gathering. Butterfield’s forces wrapped us all in a powereful celebratory hug. We were, after all, marking the tercentenary of the Magnificat itself, composed for Bach’s first Leipzig Christmas in 1723.

At first the Advent cantata, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!, felt a touch hesitant, with voices and woodwinds not quite ideally balanced and a stuttering moment or two. Soprano Hilary Cronin (pictured below by Helena Cooke) soon settled into her stride, polished and secure, with savoury contributions from the lower strings (Sarah McMahon’s cello and Cecelia Bruggemeyer’s double bass) and the first of many finely-sung alto arias from counter-tenor Hugh Cutting. In “Süsser Tröst, mein Jesu kommt”, written for Christmas 1725, Jessica Cale’s smooth, rounded and expressive soprano delivery sweetly complemented ravishing flute and string parts in the opening lullaby. The closing chorale gave a hint of the heft and lustre that this handful of singers could achieve, although the firmly grounded and nicely phrased recitatives from tenor (Charles Daniels) and bass (Jerome Knox) had helped prepare the way. In the following “Gloria in excelsis deo”, which Bach would later evolve into a section of the B minor Mass, the trumpet trio glinted and soared for the first time as this small-but-mighty choir blended punch and precision into a cathedral-strength sound. More splendid flute-playing, from Rachel Brown and Katy Bircher, added to the jubilation while Adrian Butterfield ensured that the whole caravan moved along with a magisterial tread, purposive but never frantic.

After the interval, we enjoyed a Magnificat complete with the original so-called “Christmas interpolations” in German and Latin that concert performances normally omit. (However, Butterfield otherwise kept to the revised D major version of 1733). The interpolations add extra dramatic contrasts of light and shade to a score that already displays all Bach’s mastery of theatrical coups, surprises, and reversals – a showman’s flair equal to the shifts and twists of the Passions themselves. The “Magnificat” itself burst forth with seasonal lustre and swagger while Jessica Cale glowed with warmth and strength across her range in the “Ex exultavit”. Hilary Cronin’s “Quia respexit”, tenderly in dialogue with Joel Raymond’s oboe d’amore, was thrillingly ambushed by the sudden eruption of the chorus in “Omnes generationes”. 

But then the LHP relished so many of Bach’s idiosyncratic voice-instrument dialogues as well as his radiant choral proclamations – from the charming, near-comic chug and plod of Jerome Knox’s ”Quia fecit” to the delicate, ethereal flute-alto exchange that Hugh Cutting led in “Esurientes implevit bonis”. The words tell of the mighty cast down from their seats and the poor raised up to dignity – and, in a performance as nimble and idiomatic as this, Bach sounds pretty happy with it all. In “Fecit potentiam”, we really heard the proud being scattered in a breathtaking gear-change, while Charles Daniels tore incisively and pleasurably into the overthrow of the powerful in “Deposuit potentes” against some suitably angry, biting strings. Bach does, however, branch out into the occasional spell of pure inwardly-directed magic, as in the lovely trio “Suscepit Israel”, offered by Cronin, Cale and Cutting with a Mozartian grace and poise. And, if the “Sicut locutus est” spotlit the timbre and colour of the five individual voices as the canon unfolded, the final “Gloria patri” signed off in a proper Christmas starburst of vocal dazzle and trumpet glitter. Bach’s festive radiance sounded, as it should, generous and inclusive, but never soppy. His vision of peace comes with an irresistible cry for justice.

The mighty are cast down from their seats, and Bach sounds pretty happy with it all


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The shorter review is that is was all pretty wonderful and the singers in particular seemed to be having tremendous fun.  There was some serious talent on stage. 

There were actually some rather hairy moments in the first half, and I found myself willing the performers to get through it. 

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