Artistic director Stephen Layton must have been delighted to entice such stellar musical forces to come together to celebrate the festive season.
Contributing to the seasonal riches, this heart-warming performance by David Peter Bates’ La Nuova Musica revelled in splendid settings for the
soprano voice by way of the festive cantatas of J.S. Bach and two characterful classical sacred works.
Bates is an energetic stage presence. He conveys, reassuringly, a persuasive conviction: one immediately senses that when he sets off, Bates knows exactly
where he is heading and how he plans to get there. That said, however clear one’s vision - and however accomplished the musicians at one’s command - to
capture the innate grandeur of the work sufficient forces are required.
J.S. Bach’s cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland I BVW61 (Now come, Saviour of the heathens) was composed for the first Sunday in Advent and first
performed in Weimar in 1714. The titular chorus of the cantata introduces the Lutheran hymn but the adventurous young composer combines it with a regal
overture that would not have sounded out of place in the Versailles of Louis XIV.
La Nuova Musica is - at least, it was on this occasion - a svelte ensemble: a chorus of just 8 singers, accompanied by 17 instrumentalists led stylishly
and assuredly by Madeleine Easton. Bates drew robust, finely dotted rhythms - in the French manner - shifting fluidly through the changes from common to
triple time. Both strings and chorus produced clean lines, but some of the necessary majesty and heft was missing.
Simon Wall has a light tenor, which is not in itself problematic, but the account of the miracle of Christ’s birth presented in the following recitative
and aria (‘Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche’ - Come, Jesus, come to Your church) also lay uncomfortably low in his voice - more apt for a baritone,
perhaps? - and Wall’s fairly weak projection, and indistinct enunciation, could not do justice to the animated Italianate style or the spiritual glories
recounted. The violins’ melody was full and rich, but I found Joseph McHardy’s organ unsympathetically heavy.
In the subsequent recitative, ‘Siehe, ich stehe’, Christ knocks on the doors of the faithful. The pizzicato summons was fittingly eerie and bass James
Arthur sang with focus and sensitivity. It is the soprano soloist who answers this call and opens her heart to the Saviour: Augusta Herbert sang the final,
delicate aria with expressive warmth, sweet simplicity and a lovely colouring at the top. The phrase ‘Bin ich gleich nur Staub’ (Even though I am only dust
and earth) slowed expressively, and cellist Alexander Rolton made the first of many telling, intelligent and reflective contributions during the evening.
In the final chorus, Bach introduces another Christmas song, ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (How beautifully shines the morning start), to celebrate
and welcome Christ. This chorus needs to drive with head-strong vigour to the close and eight voices are simply not enough to generate the requisite
passionate rush of fervour.
The arrival of soprano Lucy Crowe for Bach’s cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV51 (Praise God in every land!) marked a distinct change of
gear and increase in engine power. Crowe confirmed not just how vibrantly expressive her voice is - astonishing diverse in colour for a light lyric
soprano, deliciously fluid in the coloratura flourishes, but always centred and possessing just the right weight - but also the supreme assurance with
which she marries technical skill and innate musicianship. She can both sing and interpret the text; means and method serve the message perfectly.
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!
is a work of Bach’s Leipzig years - it was first performed in 1730 - and its numbers all offer jubilant and direct praise to God. In the first aria, a
perfect balance was achieved between Crowe, David Blackadder’s gleaming, lithe natural trumpet, and Easton’s spirited solo violin contributions; as the
trio engaged in long coloraturas Bates judiciously managed the tutti interruptions.
The ensuing recitative, ‘Wir beten zu dem Tempel an’ (We pray at your temple), was an expressive arioso, complemented by some beautiful string playing and
thoughtful organ continuo. The aria ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte (Highest, renew Your goodness) was fresh of tone, but introspective of spirit; Crowe span
the long lines seamlessly and glossily. A busy vigour resumed in the chorale, ‘Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren’ (Glory, and praise with honour), in which we
enjoyed more stylish violin playing (from Easton and Miki Takahashi) as they wound expressively around the soprano line supported by Rolton’s sensitive
cello underpinning. The exuberant ‘Amen’ with which cantata concludes sparkled: Crowe’s ornaments glittered fetchingly.
Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate K165 opened the second half of the concert. Crowe relished the operatic and theatrical qualities of this motet which,
reportedly, the adolescent Mozart rushed out just in time to meet a deadline for castrato Venanzio Rauzzini’s scheduled performance at the Church of San
Antonio on 17 January 1773, even though during the preceding weeks singer and composer were both involved in performances of Mozart’s Lucio Silla
which opened in Milan on 26 December 1772.
The ‘motet’ exhibits no hint of compromise, though, and Crowe drew visible delight from the exquisite craft with which Mozart showcases the solo soprano
voice. Every note was placed with absolute precision, the line was beautifully clean, ornaments - such as the exquisite trill that issued the invitation
‘Let the heavens sing forth with me’ at the close of the first aria - were finely wrought and tasteful. The slower middle section was dignified and
eloquent, while the gorgeously molten lines of the Andante ‘Tu virginum corona’ (You, o crown of virgins) ran gleefully into the concluding Alleluia. In a
letter to his mother in 1773, whilst on tour, Mozart wrote that ‘a composition should fit a singer’s voice like a well-tailored dress’: Crowe fitted so
neatly into its seams and sequins that it might have been made for her.
Haydn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai, one of comparatively few choral works that he wrote before he was fifty, concluded the programme. Although this is a
fairly light-spirited work - probably intended for the Feast of St Nicholas which was also the name day of Haydn’s patron, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy -
Bates made the most of the mass’s drama. He ensured that the orchestral prelude was tense and exciting, and that the pairing of the voices in the Kyrie
created momentum; the Credo was pulsing and exuberant, with fleetly rushing cello lines beneath complex vocal conversations, though Bates deftly drew
breath for the slow minor key quartet in which the birth and death of Christ is reverentially declaimed. But, there was gravity and composure in the
Sanctus; and the lyrical reflectiveness of the Agnus Dei, made more piquant by Haydn’s surprising dissonances, offered a serious counterweight, as the mass
lilted gently to a close.
La Nuova Musica: David Peter Bates (harpsichord & director), Lucy Crowe (soprano), David Blackadder (trumpet).
J.S. Bach - Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV62, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV51; Mozart -Exsultate Jubilate K165; Haydn - Missa Sancti Nicolai.
St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 19th December 2016.