Review: Bach Magnificat and Cantata

LIZZIE BENNETT: ‘Trinity College Music Society…has been as busy as ever, giving the pleasing illusion that, if enough concerts are presented and attended, the exams will cease to mean quite so much’

Anthony Woodman Freddie Manners Gwilym Bown ketamine Mendelssohn Natasha Goldberg Trinity College Music Society

Monday 17th May, 8.00pm, Trinity College Chapel? £5/£3/free

Exam term traditionally evokes a whole spectrum of emotions in Cantabrigian students, ranging from moderate unease at the amount of time spent procrastinating to trauma at a degree requiring hospitalisation and a hefty dose of ketamine. Trinity College Music Society, however, has been as busy as ever, giving the pleasing illusion that, if enough concerts are presented and attended, the exams will cease to mean quite so much, and the joys of classical music performed in the surroundings of Trinity College Chapel will become more important.

OK, so this effect may only be temporary. But the performances of Mendelssohn on Friday night and Bach on Monday night (and the latter’s subsequent after-party) did give a satisfyingly rude metaphorical gesture to the whole concept of exams.

Monday night’s performance was on a much smaller scale than that of Friday night’s – so much so that the conductor asked me later why I was bothering to review it – but was none the worse for this. The newly-formed Ensemble 414 is a talented chamber group, featuring solid playing from all its members. 

Particularly notable were the recorder player, Freddie Manners, who achieved the phenomenally difficult task of keeping a sopranino recorder in tune, the oboist Julian Chou-Lambert, who presented sensitive playing in his duet with the soprano 1 soloist, Natasha Goldberg (perhaps Trinity can splash out on an oboe d’amore for him now?) and all the string players, some of whom (or perhaps all, I couldn’t quite see) were playing with ‘frog’ (historical reconstruction) bows, and who played with a great sense of ensemble.

Monday night’s performance also featured some strong performances from the Chapel Choir’s soloists. Gwilym Bowen (who was making a special birthday appearance) sang several sublime tenor solos (it would have been nice if he were a soprano – then I could have had an even greater sibilant string), and also provided some entertainment by dancing along (perhaps unintentionally) to Guy James’ countertenor solos in the Cantata. 

James, a fresher from John’s, also sang well. His duet with Bowen, ‘Et misericordia’, was a little shaky, and saw him take a back seat behind the tenor part, which may have been a result of the fact that the writing was relatively low in his range and relatively high in Bowen’s – which makes it Bach’s fault, of course. James showed his true mettle with the famous aria, ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’. It was taken at quite a lick, but was confidently and musically sung.

The Bach Magnificat features only one bass solo, which was performed by Dom Sedgwick. It is a great shame that we could not hear more from Sedgwick, as this was also performed with aplomb, and the dissonances were given just the right amount of emphasis.

The two soprano soloists, Natasha Goldberg and Amy Lyddon, each sang beautiful arias and took part in a SSA trio with James. The trio did go slightly awry in places, but it did hold together and the general effect was very pleasant to hear.

The choir as a whole was, like the orchestra, quite small, and this chamber feel really suited the music. The balance between choir and orchestra was good, and none of the parts seemed to vanish at any point. 

The only criticisms of this performance are minor – occasionally, the tuning in the wind instruments was questionable, but that is not unsurprising in music in which the wind players do not have the opportunity to warm up their instruments before entries. There were also a couple of places in which one or more of the performers lost their place in the music, but it does also take some skill to stay calm and find oneself again. 

Finally, mention must be made of the conductor, fresher Anthony Woodman. This was the first time that he had conducted a large-scale work, and it was an admirable performance, of which he should be very proud.