The final Cantata concert of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Weekend opened in colourful and dramatic style with BWV19, a celestial battle between St Michael and various monsters. The Monteverdi Choir wove an energetic fugue as martial brass depicted the struggle. The narrative unfurled and bass Alex Ashworth’s recitative was gravely confident at the subjugation of all that was terrifying. This work is notable for its beautiful contrasts and there are moments of spiritual introspection and intimacy, yet in the soprano aria Hana Blazikova was barely audible, whereas tenor Hugo Hymas succeeded with a gorgeous and penetrating legato for his prayerful contribution. The Cantata concludes in joyful fashion as the apocalyptic vision transforms into an affirmation of faith.
Conflict echoes in the text of BWV101, which was preceded by the first verse of Buxtehude’s chorale setting of the same text, a fascinating and influential precursor, heard in almost every verse of the Cantata. The richness of Bach’s melodic writing is extraordinary and reaches its zenith in the alto/soprano duet accompanied by wreathing flutes and an oboe da caccia, a spiritual love duet, the work ending with a prayer that the city of Leipzig may be spared Jerusalem’s fate.
BWV78 has an interior trajectory, and the opening danced under Sir John Eliot. The Monteverdi Choir combined great impact with supreme lightness of touch. It was breathtaking. The duet that followed was equally ravishing. Julia Doyle’s mobile silvery soprano flashed and impressed at each turn, supported and matched by Sarah Denbee's warm and vibrant tones. Tenor and flute were next to the dance and Ruari Bowen impressed with bright energy. The darker side of this profession of faith emerges in the bass recitative and aria, depicting the horrors of the Crucifixion, in which Peter Harvey was outstanding, and elsewhere.
By way of contrast the two Cantatas of the second half were set against an Italianate setting by Schein, an erotic text from the Song of Songs, exploring passionate polyphony. This provided an exhilarating, brief palate-sharpener before BWV140, of huge range and power. Highlights here were the ecstatic bass and soprano duets, Doyle again shining. The English Baroque Soloists were exemplary, and there was exquisite Baroque jazz.
Gardiner dedicated the performance to John Julius Norwich and invited us to reprise the final chorale, to conclude an evening of exceptional musical and spiritual riches.