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Review: Arcangelo plays Bach: Théotime Langlois de Swarte (violin)

Jonathan Cohen, founder and artistic director of the period ensemble Arcangelo, has said that, for him, the starting point for any performance project is the musicians rather than the music.

His approach has been to assemble outstanding vocal soloists and individual top-flight musicians, all of whom share like-minded beliefs in music and perform it as a chamber consort, which was in fact, as Cohen says, the mode most music employed up to the early Beethoven.

Theotime Langlois de Swarte. Picture: Marco Borggreve
Theotime Langlois de Swarte. Picture: Marco Borggreve

Arcangelo is now one of the most acclaimed ensembles in the world, and it’s not difficult to see why. Launching with a palpable verve and gusto into their all-Bach evening, and the first of the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, it was difficult to fix the focus of one’s attention because everywhere demanded it; the strings section with lead violinist Théotime Langlois de Swarte, the lute of Thomas Dunford, the brilliant brass contributions from the two horn players and equally brilliant wind. And not least, keyboard, with Jonathan Cohen directing proceedings from the harpsichord. There was so much visible joy among the talents on display.

Bach wrote upwards of 200 sacred cantatas tailored to the liturgy of the Church’s year, and he often wrote them quickly, sometimes even at the rate of one per week.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 was followed by the second of the Church cantatas in Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalogue ‘Ach Gott, von Himmel sieh darein’ (‘Ah God, from Heaven look thereto’) BWV2.

The starry quartet of vocal soloists, fronting as the Cantata’s chorus, began with a compelling sorrow, in each of their parts, over a time where God’s word is ignored, and where faith is waning in the face of deceit and falsehood. This was the subject, too, of the Cantata’s opening recitative performed by impressive tenor, Guy Cutting.

The first of the two arias, with rising star Anita Monserrat (mezzo-soprano) and accompanied by lute, first violin and viola, asks God to eradicate the teaching which stands against His word. The solo part for violin suggests a hurried and frantic restlessness of diverse and false opinion against which a continuo sequence would seem to represent the steadfastness of divine truth.

The next recitative, delivered by an outstanding bass in Edward Grint, comes in to draw attention to the sufferings of the poor in their worldly plight, while God in his mercy intervenes and says that their sufferings will be alleviated.

The second aria (Guy Cutting) compares patience in suffering to the fiery process of refinement and purification of silver. This process is likened to the preciousness of Christ’s words as demonstrated through the endurance of His passion and death on the cross. Guy’s articulation of ‘Christ’ carried superb power and conviction. The concluding chorale reminds us that the ‘Word’ will be preserved with like purity for sinful mankind.

Following the Cantata, virtuoso violinist and composer, Théotime Langlois de Swarte took up his solo position to perform Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major (BWV1042). This master work, beginning with its three bold statements, was taken at pace by an artist wholly in command of his instrument and alert to every nuance in the opening allegro of the composition, its sorrowful adagio and its final allegro in the form of an inspiriting rondo.

Théotime’s instinct is for the ‘performance’ element in the virtuosic violinist. He is both peerless musician and mesmerising presence at once and, difficult though this piece must be to engage with, he was still fully inclusive of the strings he led, turning to exchange significant glances with them at frequent intervals. The audience, which he’d held absolutely transfixed in wonder, of course went wild when the spell was broken, and Jonathan Cohen led a brief encore (a short Bach composition) bringing together the violinist with celebrated lutenist Thomas Dunford, who commenced the piece with a subtle, exquisite and masterful solo passage.

The quartet of singers reappeared to perform the second of the evening’s two cantatas.

In contrast with the pessimism of BWV2 we now heard an uplifting Cantata ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ (‘How brightly shines yon morning star’) BWV1, celebrating in its image Christ as both king and bridegroom. The lengthy choral introduction includes a wonderfully appropriate moment where the chorus sings of Christ as ‘Lieblich’, ‘Freundlich’, (‘lovely’, friendly’), an invaluable treasure.

Three of the vocal soloists each made lengthy contributions to the cantata’s performance including one beautifully delivered by the celebrated opera and concert star, Anna Dennis.

The concluding chorale asks ‘How am I so heartily happy?’ – perhaps a fitting note to end on for the first Friday of Lent (the six week anticipation in the Christian Church of Easter’s joy), although in Bach’s spare Lutheran dispensation a time in which no cantatas were performed.

The Cambridge Music Festival has always presented the highest standards of achievement in the guests it includes for each season, and Arcangelo was an enviable example of the standard the Festival aims for. The ensemble produced an evening which can only be described as magical.


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