Monday, 5 November 2012

The Sweelinck Ensemble, St. Anne's Church, The City


'Built by Sir Christopher Wren and consecrated in 1680' is the proud subtitle of the programme to another in a long-running series of lunchtime concerts housed, hosted and promoted by the Music Society of St. Anne & St. Agnes Church, Gresham Street, in the City of London. These words, a great kitemark of authenticity for such a building in the square mile, also hint at the acoustic properties of the space. A tall, square box, designed (appropriately for a liturgically Lutheran church) after the Nieuwe Kirk in Haarlem in the Netherlands, music-making in the church rings present but with bloom. It is an ideal venue for chamber music concerts, particularly those favoured by the 'house' musicians, The Sweelinck Ensemble, directed by the Cantor (or Church's director of music) Martin Knizia.

In tandem the group and the church have forged a solid reputation for the performance of J.S. Bach. Primarily, this is through the popular series of Bach Vespers in which a cantata by Bach is performed within the liturgy once a month. However, as the name of the group suggests, their repertoire is rather more varied. This event took in the music of Bach's celebrated predecessors Heinrich Schütz and Dieterich Buxtehude as well as less well known German Baroque composers, and all seasoned with a Purcell Trio Sonata.

In the tradition of chorale preludes at Bach Vespers, so Knizia played Heinrich Scheidemann's Praeambulum in G on the main organ. To follow came the first in a series of cantatas featuring soprano Emily Atkinson (right). Schütz's Paratum cor meum, from the Venetian Symphoniae Sacrae I bears the trappings of that city's Baroque stylings, though the group chose to emphasise its polyphonic interplay ahead of its rhetoric.

The first dedicated instrumental work of the programme came with Dietrich Becker's Sonata I (from Musikalische Frühlings-Früchte), Knizia moving from the chamber organ to the harpsichord. This fine piece manipulates the narrow palette with occasional harmonic chicanery, demanding well-tuned playing from the violinists Benjamin Sansom and Philip Yeeles (neither of whom, commendably, was above bending notes to achieve a living, singing line).

Returning to Schütz's Symphoniae Sacrae I (Exaltavit) Atkinson demonstrated a coloratura to match the rigour of the violins, crowned with crystalline sound in alt, a perfect fit to the aforementioned acoustic. To showcase his soloist, Knizia then programmed an intimiate, unavoidably rhetorical work from the compser's Kleine Geistliche Konzert I, O süßer, o freundlicher, a love song to Christ with only Peter McCarthy's violone for company.

A pair of Buxtehude solo cantatas followed, separated by Purcell's Trio Sonata No. 9 'The Golden'. This work seemed to have a conspicuous bounce to its dancing rhythms compared to the more plangent German works of the programme, Sansom playfully delaying the realisation of the strong beat in his leading statements.

Buxtehude BuxWVs 38 & 39 set similar texts, upping the drama from the former to the latter. The group found some real composure in the second cantata's closing stages, taking time to savour the detached episodes of writing (not to mention Atkinson's crisp German).

The experience of fine but fairly niche music-making in this decorously sited City church was highly favourable. The concert - all their lunchtime concerts, and the monthly Bach Vespers service - is free, with tea provided. A retiring collection goes some way to making up the costs of hosting the event and reimbursing the train tickets of the performers (£5 is suggested as a donation, with Gift Aid envelopes provided). On this occasion an audience of around fifty were in attendance, many subscription holders of the Society but with a smattering of suited local workers.

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