Bristol Proms – Day 1: “Bach Night”
Andy Sheppard once said to me ‘Bach built the house we all live in’. He’s right – the DNA of all music in the West stems from that one man’s Godly vision. Today, this was yet again proved to me in a number of ways. Bach’s music has a timeless quality that only the best performers can fully deliver. I have a love hate relationship with the composer – I have heard one too many dreadful renditions of various staple pieces in my time (and sadly been guilty of committing such crimes against music myself…). Today, those disappointing pitfalls were absent.
The first show I was invited to was The Erebus Ensemble‘s recital of “Bach in the Dark” in the Old Vic’s Studio. Wandering downstairs to the basement on such a beautiful day seemed quite a waste at first, but upon entering the room it was clear we were in for something of a treat. A solitary music stand stood in the middle of the room, surrounded on all sides by the benches in a way that suggested we were about to watch some sort of competitive sport take place in the ‘ring’, not listen to some of the best music of the last half millennium. Tom Williams’ friendly and colloquial introduction invited us to take the original context of the music out of our heads; to disperse any thought of narrative intention. The concert was designed to be a listening exercise for us, to listen to the music without any preconceptions or prejudices.
We were plunged into semi darkness as the ensemble appeared from behind us, their plainsong homophony trailing round the audience as they snaked around the sides of the room, eventually coming into the centre and forming a circle around Williams. From here, we were plunged into darkness and stayed there for the majority of the performance. It was a fantastic experience, the opening piece Jesu Meine Freude emanating from the invisible sources. From here, we were delivered more Bach, some Gibbons, Tallis (particularly good), Philips and some unannounced Part and Taverner.
One of the things I noticed early on was the dryness of the room. Initially, my ears pricked up with concern – it was very strange to hear so many fantastic singers performing sacred music in such a dead environment. We are so accustomed to hearing recordings of choirs saturated in reverb or in these huge, cavernous spaces where the decay of notes lends itself to the singers’ voices. I was worried – this was going to be tiring on the ear and unforgiving to the performers. However, this characteristic became refreshing – it really exposed the quality of the singers in a very unique way. Usually, I expect large groups of singers to begin to loosen up their accuracy when they’re in an unfamiliar environment, and sibilances and plosives become staggered as nerves start to crack. In a lively, expansive environment this can be masked to a certain degree, but in such an unforgiving room I was prepared for the worst. It didn’t come – the singers’ professionalism and control was immense and their collective sense of where notes ended and syllables were placed was utterly exceptional. It’s hard at the best of times, let alone when in pitch darkness and in such a flat sounding room. Their accuracy was remarkable and is testament to their talents and also to Williams’ ability as a musical director. Particularly poignant was Taverner’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb. Throughout the whole concert, members of the choir dispersed around the room to create an effective antiphonal effect that was best felt during this piece.
In all, it was a great performance. Engaging, original and sympathetic to Williams’ desire to portray a programme where the narrative was ‘that there is no narrative’.
Just over an hour later, I attended a recital by Lisa Batiashvili. It was my highlight of the day. As I mentioned, Bach is a hard composer to nail and Batiashvili, accompanied by her husband Francois Leleux (oboe) and a select chamber ensemble, gave the whole programme a fresh and lively interpretation. As the ensemble came out, Leleux took to the front of the stage to address the audience and introduce the ensemble. Charming, engaging and obviously well humoured, he introduced his wife to great applause and with a clear sense of admiration. Quite rightly so, as their rendition of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor was utterly remarkable. I have heard this piece countless times but never before has it had such a spark. The inter-ensemble communication was immaculate, even consisting of thoughtful page turns for one another (very sweet) but didn’t give the impression that it was over rehearsed. There were smiles all round too, Batiashvili acknowledging a number of difficult passages that were on the way for Leleux during the opening Allegro (which was at a very ambitious pace). The Adagio was beautifully controlled and the space the two soloists left for one another let the flow of the continuous melodic lines dovetail wonderfully. Leleux’s circular breathing here has astonishing, not least because he managed to keep it going even when smiling wryly to himself behind the reed. The closing Allegro was just as immaculate – thrillingly raucous without being uncontrolled and held in perfect check by the especially worthy lower strings and continuo. Leleux mentioned before they started that he kept a record of every time they played this piece together (about twenty five times) and it shows no sign of going stale. I hope I get to see these two perform it again some day.
Before launching into Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto, Batiashvili addressed the audience. Left alone onstage by Leleux, she mentioned how her first performance of this piece when she was young had an orchestra of ‘ten first and ten second violins’. The much smaller scale ensemble for this piece was a point of excitement for her and rightly so. It allowed a much more delicate treatment of the solo part than is often heard – all the flourishes and elaborate turns were allowed to breathe beautifully. Her dynamic range really came across here and the consistency across the instrument was very impressive. The second movement was particularly rich – I’m a sucker for a great bass line and this movement’s lower strings ticked all the boxes.
Great performances of Bach’s Erbame Dich and Piazolla’s Spring in Buenos Aires brought the show to a close. The former was a rearrangement for solo violin and oboe d’amore (which had a beautifully haunting tone) and the latter was thoroughly entertaining. The bounce and flair would rival any jazz show and left all in the room grinning ear to ear. Batiashvili proved her virtuoso status. A fantastic performance all round and a great environment to see her in.
When I saw Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble in the programme a few weeks ago, I guessed it would be one of the ‘must see’ events of the week. I was a little worried it would fall at the extreme end of the ‘fascinating/tedious’ spectrum (but couldn’t say which for sure). It’s a tough gimmick but it worked remarkably well. Opening with Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto in this new arrangement was a bizarre experience – it was like listening to Walter Carlos’s Switched on Bach but with more personality. The Carlos record was largely programmed, and hearing it in this context with some of the most talented musicians in the Southwest playing live it found a new lease of life. Still, I think I went into it with a little bit too much of an analytic head on – the smiles and chuckles around the rooms relaxed me a little as I found relief that a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek playfulness was present. The second movement was actually quite incredible – Will Gregory’s MIDI wind controller (imagine a cross between a saxophone and a keytar) melodies were stunning and proved he is worth his salt as a musician as well as a writer and collaborator.
Over the course of the concert, we were treated to a number of delights including John Carpenter’s score for Escape from New York which was a particular highlight. During this, I had a heated discussion with those around me about how to pronounce ‘Moog’. Turns out it’s Moog as in ‘Rogue’ – a quick Twitter conversation with their offices in Nashville, TN cleared that up whilst in the concert! We then heard a number of pieces written especially for the ensemble and were introduced to all the instruments and their players (which included an SH-101, a personal favourite). Hearing so many Moogs at once was a genuine pleasure and I will be tracking them down to watch again – I hope next time they do something like this:
The opening night of the Bristol Proms has been thoroughly entertaining, engaging and awe inspiring. It has proved itself as an outlet for Classical Music in a friendly and accessible way. The rest of the week is packed with more delights. Go if you can – it’s pretty special.