Bach by Candlelight in Nelson Cathedral

Violin Sonata No 1, BWV 1014; Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248/4: aria – ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’; Cantata No 41: aria – ‘Woferne Du den edlen Frieden’; Cello Suite No 5, BWV 1011; Organ Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541; Four pieces from the Anna Magdalene Notebook; Cantata No 85: recitative and aria – ‘Seht, was die Liebe tut … Ich bin ein guter Hirt’; Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042

Keith Lewis (tenor), Douglas Mews (harpsichord), Denis Goldfeld and Douglas Beilman (violins), Rolf Gjelsten and Leonid Gorokhov (cellos), Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass), Mary Ayre (piano), the New Zealand String Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Monday 7 February, 7.30pm

It has been traditional to use the cathedral’s lighting possibilities as dusk falls to capture a special atmosphere, usually in a concert involving a voice or voices.

For the first time I was sitting on the side, from which the stage was largely obscured by one of the massive romanesque pillars. Keith Lewis was not visible during any of his four arias. It was not so important since in the first aria, from the Christmas Oratorio, I enjoyed his singing which was unstressed and well focused; Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman played the obbligato parts while Rolf Gjelsten and Douglas Mews delivered the continuo.

The second aria was from Cantata No 41, with obbligato parts from Hiroshi Ikematsu and Gjelsten (whose part was particularly interesting), with Mews on a chamber organ. Again Lewis’s voice was mellow and sat comfortably in the music even though at the top it tended to thin: that often matched the emotion of the words, sometimes it didn’t. Though there were moments when the rhythms of voice and instruments came apart, that is no surprise given the hidden traps in Bach’s music.

There were two further Bach arias in the second half. The recitative and aria from Cantata 85, accompanied by Gillian Ansell on the viola, presented more difficulties for Lewis with its awkward, wide intervals. In the aria from Cantata 97 which offered an interesting obbligato role for Helene Pohl, Lewis’s voice traversed the music quite beautifully.

A wide range of instrumental music filled the rest of the programme. The performance of the Violin Sonata No 1 with Douglas Beilman and Douglas Mews showed some lack of pliability and tonal variety, perhaps as the first item on the programme.

The fifth solo cello suite was played by Leonid Gorokhov. It drew a wide variety of reactions as a result of its several unorthodox aspects. The A string is lowered to G; and recent research has showed that the Allemande might be played at twice the usual speed, with the result that it flowed graciously, and the counterpoint that might not be so highlighted was vividly revealed in the fast playing of the remarkable cross-string passages. The curious effect was the relatively slow pace of the Courante, which Gorokhov decorated elaborately. The Sarabande, one of the most striking sections of all the suites, was so highly ornamented that its rhythm became even more difficult to feel than it usually is in a sarabande, The gavotte was very far removed from its peasant origins, so rich was the cello’s tone and the Gigue became an headlong rhythmic gallop, as if there were no bar-lines. The impression was of a very different piece of music from what most cellists have made familiar. My reaction fell somewhere between the extremes, fascinated by the surprises and the extent of the tonal and dynamic nuances but at times feeling they were not there to serve the music as much as to make his interpretation strikingly different.

The first item after the interval was one of the more straight-forward organ Preludes and Fugues, BWV 541. Douglas Mews played it on the main organ with great confidence, creating a thoroughly main-stream organ performance, hardly of the baroque era.

A surprising interlude arrived at that point. Pianist Mary Ayre played four small pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (written for Bach’s second wife) cleanly and unaffectedly.

And finally the Violin Concert in E, BWV 1042, probably the best-known and most popular. Violinist Denis Goldfelt from the Hermitage Trio played the solo part while other members of both ensembles accompanied with the ripieno. It was an exuberant performance, the soloist revealing again his great sensitivity to the music’s character and investing it with deliciously varied dynamics with a tone that was endlessly subtle, warm and brilliant.

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