One substantial backbone of this year's Edinburgh International Festival has been the series of Bach cantatas at Greyfriars Kirk. Since other commitments meant I had to be a little bit more selective with my booking this year, I chose only one, and it was obvious which it had to be: the Retrospect Ensemble on 2nd September. The reason was simple, they were joined by soprano Carolyn Sampson whom I first encountered last year at the Aldeburgh festival (the programme note indicates she made her Aldeburgh recital debut in 2007 but this appears to be a typo since she isn't in my programme book for that year). She did not disappoint.
The programme was interesting for comprising two secular cantatas, BWV 209 and 210. Also of note was the small size of the ensemble, just Matthew Hall, directing from the harpsichord, and single violinist, viola, flautist, oboist, cellist and bass.
They played nicely enough, though Hall didn't give the music quite the bounce I would ideally like. I'm not a huge fan of period instruments as a general rule, but it must be said that oboist Alexandra Bellamy got a glorious sound and it was a great shame she didn't feature in BWV 209.
The star of the show, however, was without question Sampson, who possesses not only a beautiful voice but also a stunning charisma. She is not one of those singers who stands stiffly and might as well be giving answers to directory enquiries.
As an encore we got Hall accompanying Sampson for Bist du bei mir, often attributed to Bach due to its inclusion in the notebook for Anna Magdalene Bach, but actually by Stolzel.
Sadly, neither Sampson nor the ensemble were well served by the acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk. True, it could have been much worse: they could have elected to use St Cuthbert's. However, it is overly reverberant and muddied the details. Every time Sampson's voice rose above a certain volume it suddenly became too big for the building. Why not use the Queen's Hall instead or, if it must be a church, use Cannongate? I suppose the location is better, but I'd rather the festival picked venues for how they sound. Failing that, why not simply use the Usher Hall and close everything except the stalls?
Whether it was the acoustic, the instrument, the player, or more likely, a combination of the three, flautist Rachel Brown was also rather disappointing, producing an airy and slightly mumbly sound. Added to that was the baffling decision to seat her off to one side for most of BWV 210, until she clunked noisily into place, dropping her music midway through an aria. Why she couldn't have been seated with the ensemble throughout isn't clear. (The theory that I don't like the period flue was put out the window by some divine playing in Gardiner's concert the following night.)
It also must be noted that £17 is pretty steep for an hour concert with unreserved seating (contrast this with the £10 price for McMaster's hour long series, in the acoustically superior Usher Hall with assigned seating).
I agree with most of your points. Carolyn Sampson sang beautifully, and yes the acoustic does tend to smother everything in a muddy blanket of reverberation (especially if sitting towards the back of the church)
I don't think Retrospect gave the outstanding performance of the Bach series though. For my money, that accolade goes to the Ricercar Consort. I was lucky enough to attend both their gigs. They exuded dynamism and energy, coaxing beautiful, rich timbres from their instruments. Lovely.
It does seem like the Ricercar Consort were ones to see. I'll have to look out for them in the future.
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