Glasgow Bach Cantata Project

St Margaret’s Church, Newlands

It’s well known that Bach, during his 27 years as cantor in Leipzig, wrote his weekly church cantatas like cars coming off a production line. This gave little time for rehearsal, so goodness knows what the performances were like – we have precious little on written record to gauge that by – but the music itself, as history has proven, was top drawer.

So there is an exciting relevance in the way the Glasgow Bach Cantata project has structured its initial series of concerts, driven by project coordinator Geraldine Mynors and co-directed by Michael Bawtree and Frikki Walker, and its dual objectives of raising money for the Glasgow City Mission (which provides much-needed grassroots help for the city’s homeless) and celebrating such uplifting music.

This was Concert Number 4 in an ambitious series that has already raised around £1500 for the Mission. It took place within the Neo-Romanesque elegance of St Margaret’s Church Newlands, on Glasgow’s south side, and featured three resplendent cantatas written specifically for this New Year period of Epiphany. Michael Bawtree directed a chorus and orchestra brought together on the day who offered their services free of charge, simply for the love of taking part. The performances reflected that glowing, instinctive enthusiasm and dedication.

It’s a fact that Bach, when he really wanted to make a joyful noise, employed three trumpets unrelentingly scored at their dizziest heights. Such a presence on Sunday – three gallant and exceptional students from the RCS – lit up the majority of performances that most certainly embraced the spirit of the music, ably negotiated the perils of Bach’s challenging writing, even if the chorus struggled at times to carry comfortably over the orchestra.

That was a diminishing issue as the programme progressed, so that the final work, the Epiphany section (Part 6) of the Christmas Oratorio, bore all the lustre required to send us into the cold Glasgow night with a satisfied inner warmth.

Bawtree’s practical and precise direction elicited nimble, eloquent support from a cast that drew its soloists from within the ranks. Soprano Aisling McCarthy applied fresh assertiveness to the aria Nur din Wink, with Rona Macleod’s plaintive oboe d’amore as a ravishing supportive presence. In the foregoing cantata, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange (BWV 155), written during Bach’s earlier employment at the court at Weimar, and with its emphasis on solo numbers, the duet Du must glauben proved a highlight thanks to the mellifluous interaction of alto Emily Hodgkinson and tenor Peter Cooper.

If the opening work, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (BWV 41), took time to settle in terms of balance, its success lay, as with the entire programme, in an unrelenting spiritedness that never once allowed Bach’s music to wallow or sag. 

Yes, there were dicey moments where minimum rehearsal presumably played its part, especially in the tricky accompanied recitatives, and having the choir repeatedly shift between the choir stalls and performance area was visibly messy and probably unnecessary. But this was ultimately a commendable exercise, delivered with all the right intentions and favourable musical outcomes – and all for a great cause.

Ken Walton

The next Glasgow Bach Cantata concert is at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow on Sat 11 March.