If the excellence and precision of the playing didn't let you know exactly how much work, both theoretical and practical, had gone into the construction of this afternoon concert then the deep and extensive programme notes would. The Oxford Bach Soloists, continuing their presentation of Bach's complete vocal works and performing for the first time in New College Chapel, are people who sing and play Bach with a thorough understanding of what it means. Indeed, part of their remit is to provide a 'laboratory' for researchers in early music and European history.
There are circumstances under which this could be bad news – Bach's intricacies are particularly vulnerable to an ascetic approach that almost actively wants to prevent anyone from doing anything so vulgar as 'enjoying' his music. Not here, though. It's clear simply from the demeanour of the performers that they're deep in the joy of performance, and their intimacy with the music is as physical as it is mental, allowing them to play and sing with almost casual grace.
The result was Bach revitalised. Even the familiar first Brandenburg concerto seemed new: I've heard it many times and I don't recall ever being as excited (to pick one example) by the vigorous horn and oboe trio in its final movement, or quite as aware of the sheer physical intensity required to perform it on period-appropriate valve-less instruments.
The Cantatas themselves were genuine emotional journeys – there's a reason it was Mendelssohn, a composer of the romantic era, who rediscovered Bach's music. All three cantatas were written on a similar theme – the struggle to avoid the world's temptations and the strength that religious faith provides to do so. The intuitive clarity of Tom Hammond-Davies' musical direction brought out every nuance of that struggle, connecting it to the harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns of each piece.
Special mention must go to Soprano Elspeth Piggott, stepping in for the unwell Laura Ashby to sing the whole of the final piece. We were asked to be mindful that she'd only had a day to make herself familiar with the two extra solo pieces involved, but you honestly couldn't tell – more evidence that these are musicians whose craft has matured into instinct.
The group return to New College on 22nd November. Even if you think you've heard it all before, I strongly advise you book yourself in.