The dispassionate mood was visible on the faces of the chorus throughout – while some of the showboating and gurning that can go on in choral concerts may be a little irritating it would perhaps have been preferable to the lack of animation, both physical and vocal, that was on display here.
This is not to say that there was no pleasure to be had here. Robin Whitehouse’s clear, controlled tenor voice not only made him an excellent Evangelist, but shone out in his two arias – the first of which, the heavily ornamented Fröhe Hirten, eilt, ach, eilt provided the opportunity for some extraordinary virtuosity. Counter-tenor Henry Capper-Allen stood out also. In a register where subtlety and dynamic control can often be discarded in favour of showboating falsetto, his sensitivity was highly impressive.
Unfortunately, these were the best of a variable bunch. While Bass Jon Stainsby and Soprano Rachael Parsons fell in with the general mood and gave competent but unremarkable performances, the remaining two soloists were weak. A breathless Katie Lee was almost defeated by her admittedly somewhat strident wind accompaniment (one of the Cor Anglais in particular needed to calm down a bit throughout), while second Bass soloist Adam Smyth sounded reedy and almost offhand.
With the exception of the aforementioned excitable Cor Anglais and some passionate trumpet-work in the final chorale, the orchestral accompaniment was for the most part as workmanlike as the chorus. They seemed to hurry rather brusquely past many of the chorales, and then rather perversely plod through the arias and recitatives – the lyrically impassioned So geht! Genug… was given a strict, airless treatment that drained away all of its potential drama.
It’s a shame that the reverence with which Bach is often viewed can encourage this sort of reverent, cautious approach. It takes a few risks to really bring out his genius – risks that this ensemble, sadly, didn’t seem willing to take.