Review: Cambridge Philharmonic Society

JOE CONWAY is left pondering what might have been.

Bach Cambridge Philharmonic Society West Road Concert Hall

21 March 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £24/£18/£12

What do you think about when you walk onto the concert platform to conduct one of the most profound and prestigious works in the history of western music?   Especially when you know you've five top-class vocal soloists, a well-trained choir of eighty voices, and a fine orchestra of fifty, all eager to do their best for you and for the music?

Hopefully the one thing that doesn't even cross your mind is that you want to get the thing over with as rapidly as possible! Yet for much of the time during the Cambridge Philharmonic Society's performance of Bach's B minor Mass at West Road on Sunday night it seemed to me that this was conductor Timothy Redmond's overriding preoccupation. In the end he managed to clock up a performance that was well under two hours, and no doubt this will duly show up in the Guinness Book of Records . . .

There were two obvious methods of speeding up the delivery of the music. One was to eliminate any waiting between the many short sections of the piece. So that long before the music of one movement had come to an end, the solo singers were purposefully striding from their positions upstage down to the front – and then back again.

As well as this, the choir always stood up about a minute before it was due to sing. The net result was a kind of chronic restlessness that didn't match the solemnity and serenity of the music, and gave a kind of conveyor-belt feeling to the proceedings.

The other way of expediting the performance was to drive the music relentlessly forward. I'm sorry about the hollow groans you can probably hear in the background, but fast speeds that seem to bear no relation to the inner workings of the music leave me cold – or rather, up in arms! There was a time in the recent past when people thought that because Bach and his contemporaries didn't plaster their scores with expressive markings it was okay to perform them metronomically and mechanically. But this approach has long since been abandoned in favour of restoring to the music its inherent expressive and emotional qualities.

Yet when sopranos Frédérique Klooster and Katie Bray walked downstage to sing Bach's dreamy setting of Christe Eleison, instead of sublimity there was just a scramble to fit jn the notes. Similarly in Et In Unum Dominum when Frédérique was partnered by mezzo Laura Kelly, instead of the hairs rising on the back of one's neck, there was just the hopeless feeling that relentless pressure was undermining the performance.

It's good to report however, that this pressure wasn't consistently applied. As the performance continued there seemed to be a little more time available for the soloists.

In Et In Spiritum Sanctum for instance, the baritone Marcus Farnsworth was able to invest his lilting line with more expression than had been possible before, accompanied by a delightfully pastoral oboe d'amore solo. Alexander Sprague, who has a beautifully resonant tenor voice, also fared better in the Bededictus than some of his colleagues had earlier.

This slight relaxation of speeds throughout the evening had implications for members of the orchestra too. The Phil's excellent leader Steve Bingham had been ruthlessly rushed through his noble obbligato in Laudamus Te but, thankfully, there was a little more time available for the beautiful flute solo in Domine Deus.

But possibly the most frustrating aspect of the evening was that the Cambridge Philharmonic Chorus itself had so few opportunities to really fulfil its potential. This choir is well-integrated with a good balance between the parts, and is an ideal size for West Road. The singers produced a very pleasing rounded tone without any harshness or intrusive vibrato. All that was needed to ensure a really top-notch choral performance was to allow the music to unfold at its own pace.

And when Timothy Redmond eventually opted for slower speeds in Et Incarnatus Est and Crucifixus the results were startlingly better. Finally in the Dona Nobis Pacem that ends Bach's monumental piece there was the steady organic growth one had hoped for. It gave us not only a glimpse of God's peace but also of what might have been in this performance.