Within the first eight bars of their performance on Saturday, the superb Jubilate! choir made it clear what they were about: the music. Not notes, not rhythms, but something poignant, palpable.
The evening began with J.S. Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, a complex motet comprised of eleven movements. This is an ambitious work to take on, but Jubilate! did a commendable job. The opening was stunning, as the choir imbued it with powerful tone, delicate phrasing, and crisp diction. Despite the minor intonation and ensemble issues (Section 6 contains a particularly treacherous section of voice-interweaving 16th-notes), the singers’ musical sensitivity and careful attention to phrasing more than made up for it.
In the motet Komm, Jesu, komm, the choir demonstrated similar care. The opening — “Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary” — was pleading, “My strength fails me” sorrowful and insistent, and the contrasting “Come, I shall give myself to you” spirited, almost fervent.
The second half, which featured a variety of Bach-inspired Romantic motets, is where the Jubilate! really shone. The choir’s rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s Verleih ins Frieden was especially superb: gorgeous opening that featured their impressive bass section, sensitive, pliable phrasing, a full-range of dynamics, and delicate organ accompaniment right down to the very last note.
Among the program of motets was also Léon Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique for organ, during which the soloist, Keble College student Jacob Ewens, skillfully conjured a wide range of temperaments, from the stately Introduction to the jubilant Menuet gothique and incessantly rhythmic Toccata, which he began in a playfully sinister manner and developed into a full-blown darkness which turned the final Picardy cadence into a delicious surprise.
I would be remiss to ignore the pivotal contributions of cellist Gabriel Amherst, who played continuo along with the harpsichord for the Bach pieces. Positioned on the periphery of the stage, Amherst provided more than steady harmonic structure; she rendered her lines with a flawless blend of substance and subtlety perfect suited for the Baroque style. It is also worth mentioning that her intonation was exceptional.
Special kudos to music director Simon Whalley for his inspired, diligent guidance; a composer himself, Whalley showed a keen understanding for the works presented. As for me, a new visitor to Oxford and to the U.K., in fact, Jubilate!’s performance was a wonderful musical induction. A spirited night of pathos and passion, indeed.