For his first appearance at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, John Eliot Gardiner chose a well-balanced programme of choral and instrumental music by Bach to showcase the talents of his choir and of two fine violinists with whom he has long made music – Kati Debretzeni played the A minor concerto in the first half, and she was joined in the second half by Maya Homburger for the double concerto in D minor. Framing these two concerti were a Bach motet, Singet dem Herrn, and two cantatas, Ich habe genug (with baritone soloist Peter Harvey) and the extraordinary Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4, the closing chorale of which is used by Viktor Ullmann in his one act opera, recently seen at Snape Maltings, Der Kaiser von Atlantis.
First impressions count and the first impression made by the Monteverdi Choir was that they are in as fine a voice as they have been for a long time. The sound they make is clean, nimble and beautifully assured: singers get their own consonants out of the way before others cut across their melodic lines and the result is a joy to listen to. Singet dem Herrn is a lively cantata, spiritually uplifting, and this performance was a joy. There was beautifully restrained continuo accompaniment from members of the English Baroque Soloists and the combined forces, including Gardiner, made the whole work seem easy and natural.
Debretzeni then played the A minor concerto, with fine musicality and with complete rapport with conductor and the orchestra she habitually leads. My only reservation about her performance – on a period violin with gut strings – was that her sound was under-projected: this was a concertante performance, highly enjoyable in its own right, but it was not a vivid, clearly defined soloist’s star turn. The same proved true after the interval when she was joined by Homburger: the joy they felt in making music together was much in evidence, and they played through the double concerto well, but the mean, competitive spark of the true soloist was again lacking.
True solo performing came from Peter Harvey in the cantata, Ich habe genug. Harvey has a lovely, warm baritone sound and impeccable German diction: he phrased the cantata beautifully and sang the low and high passages alike with (apparent) ease. The work was a pleasure to hear. And finally the Monteverdi Choir returned with full baroque orchestra to give a thrilling account of Christ lag in Todesbanden – a work, as Gardiner told the listening Radio 3 audience at home – that is a simply astonishing piece of virtuoso choral writing for a man, even if he was called JS Bach, to complete aged 22! This performance was fleet of foot, brimful of dynamic contrasts, finely shaped and carefully built and modulated so as to send the audience out on a high note at the end. It was a wonderful piece to hear in all its glory.
Gardiner and the same choral and orchestral forces return to the Maltings for their second performance on 16 June, when they will perform Bach’s St John Passion. On this form, it will be a stunning evening.