Five star review from The Times - Bath Motets & Biber Sonatas

The Times, by Richard Morrison, 5 October 2011
Bach Motets & Biber Sonatas at St John's Smith Square, London

If all the world’s depressed people had somehow been squeezed into St John’s to hear this concert, the pharmaceutical companies would be out of business. Who needs pills to lift the spirits when we have the six Bach motets, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir to sing them? I felt as if I was floating above the clouds as I trudged through the back streets of Victoria after their exhilarating performance.

Whatever its line-up (and its sopranos look younger every year), the Monteverdi Choir has always sung Bach with exemplary precision, style and energy. But in recent years Gardiner has added a new dimension: an expressive range that now illuminates not only phrases, but also individual words to brilliant pictorial effect. Such a description makes the performance sound a bit like a Disney cartoon, but nothing could be farther from the subtlety and sensibility with which these singers bring Bach’s texts and his glorious antiphonal polyphony to life.

Singet dem Herrn, of course, was the supreme example of all that. But I was riveted by how Gardiner turned lesser-known motets such as Fürchte dich nicht and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf into full-blown music-dramas in which competing psychological states — fear, joy, rage and serenity — seemed to flicker across each other like flames on a fire.

It wasn’t just a question of dynamic shading. The way this choir uses consonants, or changes its tone from whitened purity to honeyed beauty to strident declamation, or responds to every tiny tempo fluctuation, offers nothing less than a masterclass in Bach singing. As a bonus we were given a seventh Bach motet as an encore: the poignant little Ich lasse dich nicht — though whether this Bach is JS or another member of the family is uncertain.

In an inspired move, the motets were interspersed with three of Heinrich Biber’s Mystery Sonatas for solo violin — works that made astonishing demands on Baroque violinists, but are now as prized for their mystical qualities. Kati Debretzini managed to convey both the virtuosity and that intense spirituality. And her feat of playing the huge Passacaglia from memory while walking round the church must qualify for some sort of Guinness record.