Kendal Parish Church
20 December 2007
The Wordsworth Singers fulfilled a long-held ambition to perform J S Bach's Christmas Oratorio at Kendal Parish Church on December 20th, conducted by James Grossmith. As an aperitif to the main work, the large audience was given in the first half of the concert a spirited rendering of Bach's Magnificat, the song which, according to Luke's Gospel, Mary the mother of Jesus sang rejoicing in her pregnancy.
The Magnificat was taken at a terrific pace, perhaps reflecting the exuberant joy of Mary, and the result was very exciting. It worked well for the most part, though there were technical problems for some singers and some players at this speed and there was a distinct hitch at the beginning of Omnes generationes, where the choir entry overlaps with the soprano solo, sung by Bronagh Byrne. The opening chorus came over with great drive and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves. The singers - soloists and choir - were clearly trying to produce an authentically German pronunciation of the Latin text, as opposed to the usual Italianate pronunciation common in this country. This did present some problems and some inconsistencies, most noticeably when the Contralto and Tenor soloists, Louise Collett and Andrew Dickinson, landed several times on the same vowel sound in a duet, but pronounced it differently. Much as your reviewer is in favour of this kind of authenticity, it has to be said that the end result sounded like an English choir trying to sound German. But these are small criticisms of what was overall a stimulating performance.
After the interval, the performers embarked on the first three cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. This is really a sequence of six cantatas intended for performance at St Thomas', Leipzig, where Bach was Kantor, on successive days through Christmas to Epiphany, in 1734-5. However, Bach himself grouped them together under the label 'Oratorio'. Once again, we were treated to brisk speeds for the quicker sections. This time the choir was singing in German and they sounded far more convinced about that than they had about the Germanic Latin in the Magnificat.
There were many notable features of this performance. The quick sections were indeed quick, whilst that marked grazioso was indeed graceful, and the other slower sections were treated similarly well. A 'Natural' Trumpet (the precursor of the modern, valved trumpet, and much more difficult to play) was used to great effect in the bass solo, sung by Anders Ostberg, Grosser Herr - Mighty Lord and King all glorious. One wonders whether in the Messiah, written in 1741, Handel modelled his great bass solo with trumpet, The trumpet shall sound, on this movement. And likewise, was Handel's Pastoral Symphony, which introduces the story of the Shepherds Going to the Manger in Messiah a reflection of Bach's Larghetto movement which introduces his shepherds?
A feature of the concert which surprised even the performers was the success of the Chorales. Chorales are the hymnody of the Lutheran church and are thus well-known and 'owned' even in secular situations in Germany. Bach always included chorales in his cantatas and other larger works, for the congregation to join in. At this concert, the words and music of the chorales were printed in the programme, and the audience was invited to stand and join in, accompanied by the great west end organ of Kendal Parish Church, played by Ian Thompson. The resulting wall of sound from the organ and the large audience was thrilling in the extreme. The final Chorale, sung by the choir, was a triumphant statement of Christian theology, of the triumph of Christ and the forgiveness of sins.
In addition to the soloists mentioned, there was also Emma Harper, as second Soprano. All five soloists made an impressive line-up. All are students, or recent students, at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama at Glasgow, as is Anna Hansen, the leader of the orchestra, the Glasgow Camerata. Though most of the instruments used were modern, the players produced a Baroque lightness of touch to give an authentically Bachian feel to the music.
The conductor, James Grossmith, was making a welcome return to the Wordsworth Singers, of whom he was at one time Musical Director. He is now chorusmaster of Scottish Opera and is much involved in operatic work in Scotland and elsewhere. It is to be hoped that there will be further opportunities in Cumbria to hear him conduct concerts of this standard.