Bach - B Minor Mass - Solomon’s Knot - Nottingham & St. John’s Smith Square

Following memorable performances in December 2016 (Shoreditch Town Hall) and in July 2017 (Ulverston), Solomon’s Knot gave two subsequent performances of J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass in December 2017; the first in Nottingham and the second at St. John’s Smith Square, London.

The following video was filmed at Shoreditch Town Hall (December 2016) and published in advance of the ​Nottingham & St. John’s Smith Square performances (December 2017).

Solomon’s Knot’s debut in Nottingham took place on Saturday 16th December 2017 at St. Mary’s Church in the Lace Market. The performance was exceptionally well-received by those in attendance. William Ruff, writing for the Nottingham Post, perfectly encapsulated the essence of the occasion in this part of his article:
"It is impossible to pick out specific highlights, such was the uniform excellence of a performance which blended solo, chorus and orchestra in such a compelling way. The sheer agility and unanimity of response which bound together these thirty musicians made the whole performance one of the most radiant highlights of what has been a remarkable musical year in Nottingham."

"Solomon’s Knot had people on their feet and in tears at St Mary’s Church in the Lace Market" - William Ruff (Nottingham Post, 18th December 2017)
The second performance, on Monday 18th December 2017, was part of the 32nd Christmas Festival at St. John’s Smith Square in London. The day, crisp and fresh - perfect for photography - began with a group photo shoot in the recognisable surroundings both inside and outside St. John's Smith Square. I am sure that the images that result will be outstanding.

A representative from Classic FM was present at our rehearsal to record a short video for their social media platforms:

The performance at St. John's Smith Square was very well-attended; there were very few (if any) spare seats in the whole venue, with both upstairs and downstairs full. I hardly heard a noise from the audience during the performance, until the rapturous standing ovation at the end. Journalists present at the London performance published reviews, awarding the performance excellent ratings:
The Evening Standard - ★★★★ - Baroque collective get into the Bach dance rhythm - Nick Kimberley - 19th December 2017

The Telegraph - ★★★★★ - Solomon’s Knot's high-risk strategy yields marvellous results at St John's Smith Square - Ivan Hewett, Rupert Christiansen & John Allison - 19th December 2017

Planet Hughill - ★★★★½ -  Small scale, from memory & without a conductor: A very human B minor mass - Ruth Hansford - 18th December 2017

Classical Source - ★★★★★ - Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square - Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B-minor – Solomon’s Knot - Douglas Cooksey - 18th December 2017
Prior to the performances, an intensive day of rehearsals took place in London on Friday 15th of December. The group worked to revise and refine its collective interpretation of this iconic work, while accommodating a few seasonal changes of personnel.

On this occasion, the natural horn soloist was Kathryn Zevenbergen. She performed the Quoniam from memory (as did bass soloist, Alex Ashworth), without using finger holes or hand-stopping. It was rather impressive and it struck me that the horn obbligato in the Quoniam is an excellent opportunity to showcase the uninhibited sounds of the original form of the instrument. The characteristic sounds of natural tuning, which derive from the mathematical division of intervals from within the harmonic series, highlight Bach's intentional deviation from the tonic key in the Quoniam and make the eventual return to the tonic all-the-more glorious. Using an instrument that is inextricably liked to the harmonic series gives the Quoniam 'natural' character and symbolism. As in many instances with Bach, the medium is a meaningful part of the message. I listened to Alex and Kathryn's duet with great interest and appreciation.

During the rehearsal process, there had been some questions about whether the trumpet section (Russell Gilmour, William Russell and Gareth Hoddinott, with Rosemary Toll on timpani) ought to be more prominent. We were also consulted about whether the trumpets ought to articulate more stridently than other instruments. It is true that there are occasions in the B Minor Mass that call for a fanfare that will (briefly) cut through the texture (three unison trumpets playing the 'Osanna in excelsis' theme, in D Major, for example) but the question of whether, the rest of the time, the trumpets should be any louder or more articulated than any of the other instruments led to some interesting thought about the terminology 'clarino', as opposed to the term 'tromba'. The latter is often used by Bach for the lower trumpet part(s).

On the subject of articulation, we must consider that the players in Bach's time were most commonly multi-instrumentalists. As I wrote in my own dissertation:
"Specialising on a single instrument was not so common in most places in Europe in Bach's time. In 1743, Johann Gottlieb Goerner (Director of Music at Leipzig University) was asked to write an audition piece for all of the instruments that the Stadtpfeifer were required to play. This involved composing for trumpet, alto trombone, cornetto, violin, oboe and horn. Clearly the Stadtpfeifer were highly trained in many musical disciplines."
In an adjudication report written by Bach on 24th of July 1745 (Schering 1921, pg.44 - translated by Mendel 1950 (pg.493), quoted in Smithers (pg.125):
"Carl Friedrich Pfaffe... performed quite well to the applause of all those present on all of the instruments that are customarily employed by the Town Pipers (Stadtpfeifer), namely: Violin, Hautbois, Flute Travers, Trompette, Waldhorn and the bass instruments..."
I am currently reading The Pathetick Musician by Bruce Haynes & Geoffrey Burgess (Oxford Univeristy Press, 2016). In this book there is an excellent point made on the subject of finding a suitable "style coach".
“Before embarking on the study of the music of J. S. Bach we need to find a guide or “style coach”. Writers from the 1680s to 1750 shared basic tenants of musical performance, but when it came to details, their opinions could vary considerably. We need to find a historically appropriate and culturally relevant informant who is reliable. If we were to imagine the perfect witness to how musicians performed the music of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries, our “man on the scene”, we might well look for a professional musician from Leipzig or a nearby town or court, a singer, orchestral player or chamber musician of the same age or a little younger than Bach, interested in all forms of music, a regular churchgoer but also at home at the opera, a composer himself, well-travelled but sympathetic to German music, thoughtful, and perhaps even an instrument maker.

It is our good fortune that such a person did actually exist and that he wrote an insightful, detailed book about how musicians make music. This was Johann Joachim Quantz, the son of a country blacksmith born in 1697 in Lower Saxony to the west of Leipzig. Twelve years Bach’s junior, Quantz was a self-made musician and, for the first part of his career, a member of the Dresden court Capelle, the most prestigious musical establishment in Germany at the time. In 1728 he became flute teacher to Prince Frederick, and in 1740 then Frederick ascended the Prussian throne, he followed as one of the key members of the new monarch’s retinue. Dresden was not only the capital of Saxony but its largest city. Saxony’s second city, Leipzig, where Bach worked, was 112km (about seventy miles) to the west. Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann was organist at the St. Sophia’s Church in Dresden from 1733, and three years later Johann Sebastian was appointed Royal Composer at Dresden. As a gesture of thanks, he performed a concert there, choosing to play on the magnificent new Silbermann organ at the Frauenkirche. Quantz, along with many other members of the Capelle, may well have heard this concert.

Quantz’s Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Essay of a Method for Playing the Transverse Flute) was written primarily for his royal pupil Frederick, but in the introduction he set out its more general functions as “Instructions for playing the flute, and for becoming a good musician at the same time.” He published the book at the age of fifty-five, toward the end of a long and successful career. The Versuch became famous almost immediately, and (though many of its precepts are virtually ignored) has had a considerable influence on players from then up to the present time.”

[This chapter continues in great depth and is well worth reading in full.]
With this in mind, I feel that the articulation of the trumpet should be in line with that of other instruments and informed by "style guides", such as in Bruce Haynes' example. Meaningful deviations can be made, however, for symbolic reasons. The trumpet's dual symbolism (the association with earth and war in the low register, and the association with angels, heaven and kings in the high register) does mean that certain entries or movements can be treated symbolically; it would be in poor taste to play a manner of warlike sounds when the music is making reference to the divine.

On the idea of achieving a suitably 'clarino' sound, a brilliant metaphor came from Frans Brüggen via my former teacher (David Staff). Brüggen had said (and this is perhaps paraphrased): “In Beethoven, the trumpets are the fireworks. In Bach, the trumpets are the pieces of gold and silver that fall down afterwards.”

It was interesting, then, to note that the reviewer (Ivan Hewett et al.) from The Telegraph picked up on more "delicate" sounds from period trumpets:
"Intimacy is all very fine, some might say, but what about the sheer splendour of the Sanctus and Dona Nobis Pacem as done in the old way, with a massed choir and all trumpets blazing? True, we didn’t get that, but the ebb and flow of the solo voices and the delicate sound of the period trumpets created a different kind of radiance, less overwhelming but much more moving."
Ruth Hansford, writing for Planet Hughill devised a different metaphor (though perhaps in reference to the bright sounds of D major):
"Then a newly tuned D major ‘Sanctus’ punched through with the trumpets – it was as if the sun had come out."
It is so interesting to read accounts about the sound of the group. The listener's position in the room can make a great difference and their existing expectations of this (obviously well-known) piece of music will, of course, inform their comparison. For balance, one reviewer (writing for The Evening Standard) could have taken still less from the trumpets:
"The voices were young and fresh, although at times more weight and colour would not have gone amiss: when trumpets and timpani were playing at full tilt, the choral sound occasionally lost definition and presence."
While on the subject of the sound of the group: by chance, one review mentioned my own personal favourite part of the whole performance - the playout of the Osanna.
"... the reprise of ‘Osanna’, and for the playout the band cranked up the fun and games."
This is when the tutti orchestra really comes into its own, after some of the most excellent choral passages. It feels to be a pinnacle of Baroque splendour as the Osanna oscillates to a climactic, yet refined, close - leading the way for the Benedictus (delivered with excellence by Thomas Herford (tenor) along with the wonderfully rhetorical flute playing of Eva Caballero). Agnus Dei had stunning violin playing (led by James Toll), and impeccable singing - delivered with suitable desolation - by Kate Symonds-Joy.

Leo Duarte and Robert de Bree had also given a scintillating contriubtion to the Et in Spiritum Sanctum, sung by Jonathan Sells.

Aside from a few necessary (and deserved) honourable mentions here and there, it is most notable that reviews about Solomon's Knot tend to remark upon 'the whole' rather than singling-out individuals. This is a very healthy situation. The ensemble thrives on its collective ethos, and all of the players and singers deeply care about the quality of the performances. It is not just 'another gig' or something you feel that you should do... It is something that we all want to do. This is something reflected in the group's most recent audience reactions; noted equally in immediate applause as in subsequent prose.

Solomon’s Knot 

Soprano I - Zoë Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths
Soprano II - Jessica Gillingwater, Ciara Hendrick
Alto - Kate Symonds-Joy, Guy James
Tenor - Thomas Herford, Peter Davoren
Bass - Jonathan Sells, Alex Ashworth

Trumpet I - Russell Gilmour
Trumpet II - William Russell
Trumpet III - Gareth Hodinott
Timpani - Rosemary Toll
Flute I - Eva Caballero
Flute II - Thomas Hancox
Oboe I - Leo Duarte
Oboe II - Robert De Bree
Horn – Kathryn Zevenbergen
Bassoons – Inga Maria Klaucke, Hayley Pullen (also Oboe III)
Violin I – James Toll, Guy Button
Violin II – Jamie Campbell, Beatrice Phillips
Viola – Joanne Miller, Victoria Bernath
Cello – Jonathan Rees
Violone – Jan Zahourek
Harpsichord & Organ – Chad Kelly

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.