Last week St John’s Smith Square was alight by their 30th annual Christmas Festival. The final performances of the festival included masterpieces that one would expect to see during the festive season including Bach’s Mass in B minor and Handel’s Messiah. This also included a unique concert entirely devoted to three composers who led musical lives in Leipzig some 300 years ago. Roughly around the same time the Gewandhaus orchestra – one of the world’s best orchestras – was founded.
The evening’s host were the fantastically fresh and enthusiastic Solomon’s Knot that recently teleported Antonio Abati’s work, l’Ospedale into the unfair and politically charged world of the NHS at Wilton’s Music Hall. Much like the opera, the concert’s staging was a different affair. Rather than the usual format of audiences facing towards St John’s Smith’s stage, the evening was reconfigured into a semi-circular shape where audiences could inspect the musicians’ fine playing and the exquisite singing from the soloists.
Solomon Knot’s unique selling point is the ability to perform without a conductor, removing the barriers between performer and spectator. The evening benefited from this distinction – audiences could see soloists and musicians as stand alone performers with remarkable talent.
The ‘Christmas in Leipzig’ paid particular attention to Bach’s E-Flat major Magnificat (BWV 243a), which followed after performances by Bach’s predecessors. Johann Schelle (1648-1701) was appointed Thomaskantor in 1677, which was a prestigious musical title to have in Leipzig at the time. He composed Machet die Tore weit for the first Sunday in Advent, celebrating the coming of Christ. Schelle’s piece was so popular that it made the people of Leipzig fly to churches ‘like bees.’
Solomon’s Knot played with assurance and zeal with Rosemary Toll on the drums and celebratory trumpets played by Russell Gilmour, William Russell and Gareth Hoddinott. Their playing added to the effect of mass music, similar to the text found in Handel’s Messiah.
Known for being a composer of programmatic keyboard pieces from the Old Testament, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) wrote Magnificat – it is the largest piece of his remaining vocal work. It is, most, obviously the work that compelled Bach to compose his subsequent version. The soloists sung gloriously together to Kuhnau’s versatile baroque music, which features a variety of textures and forms.
The solo soprano piece, Et exsultavit was accompanied by an oboe and charmingly sung by Clare Lloyd. Yet the joyful music took a turn with countertenor Benjamin Williamson’s sorrowful voice and intense portrayal in Quia respexit. Thomas Herford also gave a moving performance to the central tenor solo Et misericordia eius.
Bach wrote his Magnificat (BWV 243a) under severe circumstances. Alongside composing, he was a Kantor, singing and music teacher to the Thomasschule and managed the music for four principal Leipzig churches. The original E-flat major Magnificat, which pre-dates the revised version we are most familiar with, was composed for Bach’s first Christmas Day in Leipzig. Much like Kuhnau main tenor part, here Et misericordia eius was boldy and memorably sung by countertenor Williamson and low tenor Ben Thapa, – again, plucking at the audiences’ heartstrings.
Nostalgia crept in for anyone who had played the recorder at school (including myself) through Esurientes implevit bonis, which was pleasantly sung by Kate Symonds-Joy and accompanied by recorder players Leo Duarte and Joel Raymond. Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells, Charmian Bedford, Lucy Goddard and Kate Symonds-Joy gave outstanding vocal performances in their solo parts. And Chad Kelly’s deserves credit for his skilfulness on the organ and harpsichord.