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Music: Ascension Oratorio, J. S. Bach (Wigmore Hall)

17 June 2022

Fiona Hook listens to Ascensiontide Bach

Wigmore Hall

WITH a concert featuring Bach’s rarely heard Ascension Oratorio, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players came to the fifth and final concert in their year-long Wigmore Hall series celebrating the liturgical feasts.

The beginning was unpropitious. The opening Sinfonia from Cantata 29 centres on the solo organ line, an exuberant whirlwind of notes arranged from the E-major solo violin partita, Here, William Whitehead’s effortless virtuosity struggled, at times unsuccessfully, to be heard against an overloud ensemble with trumpets whose tuning was sadly errant. Fragments of melody floated through the accompaniment like strands of waterweed in a turbid pond.

Things improved rapidly after that, so much that one wondered whether the major works hadn’t claimed most of the rehearsal time. Bach’s Mass in A BWV234 — one of four Masses composed for the Lutheran rite — doesn’t rise to the sublime heights of the B-minor, but still has some lovely music, and should be heard more often. In the opening Gloria, four beautifully matched voices — the countertenor Tim Mead, the soprano Mary Bevan, the tenor Thomas Walker, and the baritone Malachy Frame — blended to create a perfect whole. In the Kyrie’s Christe section, they piled gradually one upon another to give the slow fugue a cosmic inevitability. Mary Bevan’s “Qui tollis”, with flutes and no bass, the music reworked from Cantata 179, created a tinglingly chromatic meditation on the sins of the world.

There was more joy in the evening’s major work, the 1735 Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen. McCreesh eschews the modern tendency of speed for speed’s sake, his tempi letting the music breathe while never allowing it to drag, his one-to-a-part band attentive to his every nuance. The opening chorus punched above its weight in sonic terms, a loud, joyous and crisply articulated hymn of praise to God.

Once again, the soloists were individually and collectively impressive. Thomas Walker was an authoritative and incisive Evangelist, his sudden transformation into an angel, duetting with Frame, a masterstroke on Bach’s part. Mead’s “Ach, bleibe doch” was a divine moment, full of quiet sorrow, reminding us that while our Lord had ascended to heaven, the disciples had lost a miraculously restored friend for a second time. Mary Bevan’s lilting “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” shone with rapture. Sharply marked sprightly syncopations added brightness to the closing chorale “Wenn soll es doch geschehen” and brought a splendid evening to a joyous end.

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