sat 13/04/2024

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Koopman, Christ Church Spitalfields | reviews, news & interviews

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Koopman, Christ Church Spitalfields

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Koopman, Christ Church Spitalfields

Drama both on and offstage in this opening concert of the Spitalfields Summer Festival

Ton Koopman: a visit from one of The Netherlands' finest Baroque musicians is all too rare

It’s one thing for UK Border Control to turn Heathrow’s Arrivals into a giant theme-park queue, but it’s quite another when they start messing with our music. Paperwork issues yesterday saw one Japanese and two Korean members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra denied entry to the UK, leaving Ton Koopman and his band too under-staffed to attempt their planned Brandenburg Concerto.

Fortunately, soprano soloist Dorothee Mields stepped up with Bach’s Cantata BWV 199, giving us a rather more vocal, but no less Bach-centric evening of music to open this year’s Spitalfields Festival.

One of the particular delights of the festival is its characterful venues, including both the Palladian Shoreditch Church and Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields. The bells of the latter were pealing out as we approached for last night’s concert – a sacred fanfare and prelude to a programme of Bach cantatas and the composer’s Suite No 1 in C major.

There's a playfulness and an irreverence towards the material

The stately Ouverture, driven with percussive impulsion by the lower strings, set the pace for the programme, revealing the unusual heft of this period ensemble. Not for them the brighter colours of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra or Concerto Koln; the ABO takes its base shade from cellos and bassoons – more oak than pine – and gestures of phrasing and articulation match it for impact. The effect is felt in the gut, a texture that has weight without ever becoming weighty.

Certainly there was nothing laboured about Rebecca Mertens’ virtuosic bassoon lines in the Ouverture, nor the gauzy dancing of upper strings in the Courante that followed. The Gavottes brought the pair of oboes to the fore, acid against the backing string texture, and anticipating Antoine Toruncyk’s obbligato passages in the cantatas, while the Minuets were as poised as any 18th-century roué in their graceful dip and sway.

The interplay of the ensemble, directed by Koopman from the harpsichord, is like an opinionated conversation among old friends. While things never degenerate into outright disagreement, there's a playfulness and an irreverence towards the material that emerged most clearly in the ferocious front-of-the-beat attack in the Bouree and later in the closing Gavotte of Cantata BWV 202, in which Koopman and his cellists strove to outdo one another in physical strength.

While the programme might have worked better texturally with the three cantatas split around the orchestral suite, both Mields and Bach’s own orchestration strove to offer variety and contrast. The joyous Cantata BWV 51 offers its soloist little time to settle in, before launching (complete with obbligato trumpet) into some of the composer’s most thanklessly instrumental writing for voice. Endless runs culminate breathlessly at the top of the voice, and while a few were (quite understandably) a little snatched, Mields’s (pictured right) charming and vivid delivery, as well as the relaxed beauty of her tone, carried us along with her. “Hochster, mache deine Gute” offered more space for the voice, and with the accompaniment stripped back to continuo Mields was free to play expressively with the church’s acoustic – something that continued through the rather more brooding Cantata BWV 199.

Bach’s accompaniments are rarely straightforward supporting roles, and in Cantatas 199 and 202 the orchestra had plenty of opportunity to engage with Mields. A brisk viola solo sits alongside the voice’s unadorned chorale, while elsewhere a solo oboe swarms elegantly in and around the vocal line. Yet nowhere were these decorative touches more effective than in the opening of Cantata 202. The text paints a scene of pastoral fecundity, which grows out of simple string arpeggios, flourishing organically into an oboe melody, itself then transformed into the first entry of the voice – gorgeously handled by Koopman and Mields.

This year’s Spitalfields Summer Festival has a Dutch strand running through it, and there are few ensembles that could so proudly and persuasively champion that nation than Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Hearing them live at all is a rare pleasure in the UK, but to hear them performing the music of Bach in a church of Bach’s own era is still more rare, especially when Border Control have their way.

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