Loss and celebration were the themes embedded in a programme comprising two secular cantatas from J.S. Bach’s Leipzig years, and a single aria attributed to him but now believed to be written by his near-contemporary Melchior Hoffmann (c.1679-1715). Linking Bach’s cantatas was the once popular figure of Christiane Eberhardine, wife of the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, whose death in 1727 is mourned in Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl (BWV198), and then the birthday of her son Augustus III of Poland is honoured six years later in Schleicht, spielende Wellen (BWV206). Both works demonstrate a wealth of musical invention, not least in their resourceful instrumentation and use of imagery where bells and waves are variously evoked to striking effect.
The use of bells was abundantly clear (too much at times) in Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde (BWV53), a gentle aria of uncertain origin scored for alto, bells, strings and continuo. It was possibly written as part of a now lost funeral cantata, its text expressing eagerly anticipated death. Helen Charlston (replacing the originally advertised Daniel Taylor) was an admirable alto soloist for what is a simple minuet in the form of a da capo aria. She combined an unimpeachable vocal technique with musical intelligence that consistently held the listener’s attention in a way the aria did not. Security of pitch was unfailingly evident throughout, but at times a gentler, warmer tone would have better captured the text’s pleas for heavenly relief.
An enlarged ensemble and the full complement of soloists combined for the pièce d’occasion that is Bach’s Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, often known as the Trauer Ode. It was privately commissioned by a wealthy Leipzig student, Hans Carl von Kirchbach, to commemorate the death of the much-loved Christiane Eberhardine. Estranged from her husband, she had remained a loyal Lutheran (he had converted to Catholicism to assume his throne in Warsaw) and taken refuge in her Schloss at Pretzsch on the banks of the Elbe. She was greatly venerated by her fellow Lutherans and following her death, four months of mourning was decreed. The commission inspired one of Bach’s most imaginatively conceived and lavishly scored cantatas. That he wanted to make an impression is implicit in the multiplicity of instruments deployed which, in addition to the conventional strings and continuo, includes pairs of flutes and oboes, two viola da gambas and parts for lute.
The combined forces of this ensemble were at times too much for the relatively confined space of the Wigmore Hall, and the sixteen or so players regrettably generated some unrelentingly strong singing from the four soloists. Admittedly, Bach’s writing is quite dense in the opening chorus, but with Butterfield directing with his back to the woodwind and upper strings, he did not always control his players in respect of dynamics and tempi. Mixed results continued in the ensuing recitative and aria where Julia Doyle’s resplendent soprano felt undermined by the weight of string tone. Single strings would surely have been appropriate for the aria’s petition ‘Fall silent, fall silent, you lovely strings!’ Bell tolling was nicely articulated in the brief recitative for alto (Helen Charlston now suitably plangent), but its companion aria with two viola da gamba and continuo felt unsteady at times yet revealed Charlston’s gift for sustained phrasing. Elsewhere, Charles Daniels brought much musicality to ‘Die Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus’, mellifluous flute and oboe d’amore holding the ear and supporting the soloist’s variable focus when comparing radiance of the Electress to the glow of a hundred suns. In well projected tones, if little in the way of intimacy, Matthew Brook made clear the reverence for the departed Electress extended to the rivers of the Vistula and Elba – a neat link to the cantata that followed.
Described as a ‘Dramma per Musica’, Schleicht, spielende Wellen unfolds as a dialogue between four ‘characters’, in this instance rivers (Vistula, Elba, Danube and Pleisse) within the geographical orbit of the Elector of Saxony. Festive trumpets now coloured the opening chorus but, yet again, the combined forces of the London Handel Players too often overpowered the solo voices. Evocations of flowing rivers outlined in the anonymous text began persuasively, but soon surged unpredictably as tempi became a moveable feast. Bach’s succession of recitatives and da capo arias praising August drew varied expression from the soloists; Brook somewhat empathic and Daniels not without a sense of strain, though the billowing rhythms of his aria ‘Jede Woge meiner Wellen’ showed the perpetual motion of Butterfield’s violin to advantage. It was the alto and soprano arias that left the deepest impression, oboe d’amore players and three flutes lending beguiling support. A roistering chorus ended the cantata but, exciting as it was, I left thinking it was an evening where less would have been more.
Julia Doyle (soprano), Helen Charlston (alto), Charles Daniels (tenor), Matthew Brook, London Handel Players & Adrian Butterfield (director).
Hoffmann: Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, BWV53; J.S. Bach: Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, BWV198; Schleicht, spielende Wellen, BWV206.
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th February 2022.
ABOVE: Helen Charlston