I'm not always a fan of John Eliot Gardiner. His Bach is impressive and his recording of Beethoven's fourth symphony ranks among the finest. However, in my view the less said about his Brahms recordings or his choice of a jacket that had lime green cuffs the better. However, we were here for his musical talent not his sartorial taste, and a programme of Bach and Handel was home ground, and, accompanied by two ensembles he founded, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, he was unlikely to disappoint.
The programme began JC Bach's Es erhub sich ein Streit, the more famous Bach's first cousin once removed. It was a fun and dynamic piece, well played an sung. True, the period trumpets struggled a little with some fiendishly difficult trills, but I'm not sure anyone on original instruments could do much better.
Then came part one of Handel's Israel in Egypt. This too was well played and very dramatic, Gardiner particularly bringing out some wonderful textures for such occurrences as the plague of locusts. However, I would have preferred slightly more balance towards the choir. Solid, and sometimes very strong solo performances were drawn from the choir. Indeed, the only significant problem was what on earth happened to the other two parts. Their absence was the more baffling given they are currently touring with the complete work. Apparently the justification for this was that Haim brought the whole thing last year. Very possibly, but on that basis the whole thing should have been banned. Similarly, I feel I should point out to those responsible for programming that the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees brought Mendelssohn's Scottish symphony and Elijah, both of which the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have already played earlier this year (and that around two thirds of the festival audience is local).
In place of the rest of the Handel, the second half was taken up by some Bach cantatas, in keeping with one of this year's themes. We got BWV130 and 19, both written for the feast of St Michael, along with the miniature BWV50. Gardiner's ability with these works is well know from his series of cantata recordings from 2000, and their performances were similarly assured, such that it was hard to be too irked by the truncation of the Haydn. The only minor reservation concerned the soprano in BWV19 who didn't have a big enough voice from the hall, and sounded constantly out of breath as a result. However, this was in general first class Bach playing and singing. Each bar was enthused with drama and energy in a way that was the polar opposite of the lamentable Actus Tragicus.
They were deservedly well received and, perhaps thumbing their noses at having been asked not to play all of the Handel, gave us a stunning encore from it, with a fantastic and fantastically powerful soprano solo.
One thing that did puzzle me was Gardiner's decision to constantly call the soloists down from the choir. This wasn't a problem in theory, but they never waited for the music to finish before doing so and often caused unnecessary noise as a result. He also moved his trumpets around a lot, but unlike Runnicles, didn't seem to achieve a radically different sound in the process. The staff of the Usher Hall would do well to oil one of the platforms they stood on, as it squeaked incessantly.
The concert is on Radio 3 on Thursday at 7pm and well worth tuning in for.