Human mortality was the theme of this first concert of the year by the Oxford Bach Choir, looking back to winter rather than ahead to spring. Before the interval we heard J.S. Bach's Trauer-Ode, a cantata composed in 1727 at the behest of Leipzig University as a funeral tribute to Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, wife of August II the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Aristocrats in those days sure did award themselves long-winded names and soubriquets! Unusually, the text is secular – nothing here about pearly gates or eternal fires - announcing the kingdom's shock and grief over the princess' death, then turning into a paean to her sublime merits and dwelling upon the irreparable loss suffered by the good folk of Saxony.Bach himself directed the première from the harpsichord, whereas the London Mozart Players, sporting two players on lute and another pair on the viola da gamba, were further bolstered by Merton College's Alex Little playing organ continuo. This is a piece giving scope primarily for its four soloists, but that emphasis was balanced later by Mozart in his Requiem having allocated to the choir the lion's share of the work.
Conductor Benjamin Nicholas got his singers down to their task smartly with the opening Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, and then each soloist in turn was called on for a recitative followed an aria (the bass escapes with a recitative alone). Of the solo quartet, soprano Cecilia Osmond made an immediate impression with pure pitch and volume to spare with her Dein Sachsen, dein bestürztes Meißen solo. She was succeeded for the alto part by the young countertenor Alexander Chance, whose voice is pleasingly light in tone, though he was not quite at home with the notes at the very bottom of the register in his Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt! air – the twin lutes were prominent hereabouts - and for the stretched ending of his Noch eh er ihre Brust besiegt his breathing control was slightly awry.
The fact recorded in Martin Holmes' super-informative programme notes that this was a first-ever performance by the OBC of Mozart's brief motet Ave Verum Corpus was a surprise, but here it was, and the choir, all singing without the score, gave it a smooth as buttermilk rendering.
Then we were on to Mozart's Requiem, whose history and tricky attribution was described at interesting length in the notes. It's always seemed to me implausible that the otherwise undistinguished Sussmayr could have composed more or less on his own four of the work's later movements, but that's an argument for another day. Benjamin Nicholas led choir and orchestra into the Introit with a slightly ponderous tread, I thought. He has had the unenviable task of following as director of the OBC Nicholas Cleobury, now ensconced Down Under as Head of Opera of Queensland Conservatorium, and one of the finest conductors of a choir and orchestra I've seen and heard.
The solo trombone had its moment in the sun for the duet with bass Alex Ashworth, and then there was that brief but thrilling combination by all four principals in the Quid sum miser tunc dicturus before the choir responded with appropriate power and euphony to spare in Rex tremendaue majestatis. For the Lacrimosa dies illa, the emotional kernel of the Requiem and employed with crushing emotional force by Milos Forman to illustrate Mozart's funeral in his Amadeus, the choir, filling three sides of the rear of the playing space, rose to the challenge. While its flexibility with the part-singing was exemplary, any slight quibble I had with its singing would centre upon the clarity of its diction; the ecclesiastical Latin does not of course trip easily off the tongue these days, but still it was difficult to follow the libretto even with the text at hand.
In the penultimate Agnus Dei, the upper strings section played with a delightful, swaying effect as the traditional Catholic liturgical text swirled around us with its final message of the comfort of eternal rest and divine mercy. A stirring occasion, and the performances bode well for the OBC's next outing, Elgar's Dream of Gerontius on 8th December.