The fact that this late-night Prom attracted nearly a full house is testament to two important points: firstly, it is indicative of the enthusiasm of prommers and of the truly festive atmosphere that the Proms season still holds today. The increased number of concert performances for the 2009 season is clearly working well, with even these shorter, later concerts being incredibly well-attended. Secondly, if anyone was to attract a crowd of this size, by singing Bach motets, it had to be Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir.
Gardiner, of course, has long been acknowledged as the leading figure in the interpretation and performance of Bach, and an integral element of the Early Music revival. However, since he led the Moneteverdi Choir's ground-breaking Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000 (where they toured 60 churches in Europe, performing all 198 cantatas to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer's death) – of which the recordings are currently being released on their own label, Soli Deo Gloria – they have become a phenomenon all of their own. Not only have they gained great acclaim from Bach lovers for their significant endeavours on such a large project, but the resultant recordings are receiving rave reviews from every angle (see the links below to musicalcriticism.com's reviews of the latest releases).
On this occasion – very aptly, the anniversary of Bach's death - prommers were treated to a selection of four Bach motets, however, the groups extensive experience of the composer's cantatas paid dividends here too. Bach's love of the then-relatively old-fashioned form of the German motet received a more cantata-like treatment with scope for greater virtuosity and expression of emotion; mostly certainly two qualities that shone through in this performance.
It is also interesting to learn that Gardiner has a particularly intimate relationship with these featured motets, having learnt them off by heart at the tender age of twelve. His affection and passion for these works – even if one had not known this interesting nugget of information – is self-evident in the lovingly-sinuous manner of his conducting throughout. Without the aid of a score, Gardiner teases out the interweaving melodic lines from each part with the smoothest of gestures; entirely captivating to watch.
The concert began with a truly rousing performance of Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229); clear, crisp diction created a sparkling start. The clarity of each part, even within complex polyphonic passages, was remarkable and well-managed by Gardiner. A sense of the text's meaning was brilliantly communicated, such as the yearning of the initial line of invocation ('come, Jesus, come'), and the moments of yearning throughout (e.g. 'I long for thy peace').
Special attention was paid to stage-positioning, as the continuo players (all members of the English Baroque Soloists) were repositioned between motets, alternating from stage left to the centre, with singers either side. Their support was reliable and beautiful, as always, offering a strong base for each work, whilst not detracting from the main choral focus.
The ethereal sounds of Furchte dich nicht (BWV 228) ended with a spine-tingling conclusion, highlighting the concluding text – 'be not afraid, thou art mine', whilst the third motet of the evening, Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227), exhibited some wonderful, concise unison singing in the fourth verse.
The final motet began with a sizzle of consonants, whistling around the choir. The 'singet' in Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied (BWV 225) was cleverly thrown around the group with precision, creating a crisp and vibrant sound. The boisterous performance of this motet concluded with a similarly powerful 'halleluja!', rousing the audience into a torrent of applause, who, despite the late hour of theconcert’s conclusion, still remained to give the performers apt recognition of their evening's achievements.
This was concise, powerful and compelling singing, guided by a conductor who has unswerving knowledge and passion for the repertoire; a joy to watch and a marvel to listen to – a Proms highlight, for sure.
Photo: John Eliot Gardiner by Maciej Gozdzielewski
CD review: Volume 20 of Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage
CD review: Volumes 3 and 27 of Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage
CD review: Volume 25 of Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage
Concert review: The First Night of the 2009 Proms