Review of concert: Bristol Choral Society, Bristol Cathedral, Saturday 16th June, 2018

With the closure of the Colston Hall barely a week away, Bristol Choral Society took full advantage of their new venue by presenting their summer programme in Bristol Cathedral. A ‘one composer’ programme can be a fraught gamble for
promoters, but their programme devoted to Bach’s choral works was a winner: the large audience was treated to two of Bach’s motets, a solo cantata and, the climax of the evening, his setting of the Magnificat.

The motets in particular reminded us of Bach’s musical lineage – the 17th Century motets of Schutz and those of the 16th Century Gabrieli. In both Komm, Jesu, komm and Singet dem Herrn Bach divides his choir into two equally balanced halves, and whilst the funeral origins of the former elicit a restrained, melancholic style, that of the latter is amongst the most exuberant music written by the great Baroque master.

The choir responded admirably both to the style of music and conductor, Hilary Campbell. The evening started with the monumental motet Singet dem Herrn. The singers had to make battle with an acoustic which, at Campbell’s unforgivingly fast tempo, rendered the opening movement a swirling fog in which it was almost impossible to distinguish individual lines. The central movement was much better: the texture cleared to allow some fine contrasts of the two choirs. The final Alleluia was finely judged and very exciting.

In Komm, Jesus, komm the choral effect was far better appreciated – complex counterpoint and dazzling fugues giving way to more homophonic chordal progressions, with no fugues or traditional chorales in evidence. Conductor Hilary Campbell moulded the opening movement extremely effectively – helped by a less frenetic tempo. The choir, too, seemed far more at ease and the performance was well-judged, sonorous and well-balanced.

The majority of Bach’s cantatas were written for chorus, so it was especially pleasing to hear his solo Cantata 51, Jauchzet Gott, for soprano and obligato trumpet. The work calls for virtuoso singing and instrumental playing of the highest order, with Charlotte Mobbs (soprano) and Steve Bailey (trumpet) frequently performing as a ‘duet’. Whilst their individual performances were extraordinarily good, there was a clear imbalance in dynamic between them and not a little loss of ensemble – again, possibly a problem compounded by the resonance of the building, and being positioned far apart.

As if to underscore Bach’s indebtedness to the Dresden master, Heinrich Schutz, the BCS Choral Scholars gave a delightful performance of his a capella motet Die mit Tränen säen. Performing so well and so sensitively whilst unaccompanied was a great tribute to their musicianship.

The highlight of the evening was indeed Bach’s Magnificat. Here the choir was joined by the full forces of the Corelli Orchestra, playing on period instruments. The choir seemed fired up and hugely confident of this work and even managed to overcome the acoustic sea of semiquavers in the fast choruses. Soprano soloist Charlotte Mobbs came into her own with some exquisite singing, equally matched by alto soloist Ellie Minney. The two gentlemen soloists, too, were very good – Paul Bentley-Angell (tenor) and Marcus Farnsworth (Baritone). I could cheerfully have heard much more from these two very fine voices.

The cathedral is a difficult building in which to make large-scale music: it brings problems of ensemble, cohesion and balance – all affected by the enormous resonance and echo. However, this was just the right venue for this music, and Bristol Choral Society are to be congratulated for bringing this music, which is so seldom heard, to this fine building. What is now required is an appropriate tempo for works of this kind in such an acoustic.

Martin Firth, Bristol Post, 16/06/2018