Readers of the Catholic Herald are unlikely to be overcome with enthusiasm for the quincentenary of the Reformation, which occurs this year. But it’s been celebrated with a vengeance at Clare College, Cambridge where the choir, under conductor Graham Ross, has been giving liturgical performances of appropriately reformist Bach cantatas every Sunday throughout Lent.
Last week, as a grand finale, Clare Choir came to London for what you might call a reformist gala at St John’s, Smith Square, bringing its own baroque band and star soloists such as the soprano Mary Bevan.
And it was a cleverly constructed programme, all the pieces – Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams – based on sturdy Protestant chorales or hymn tunes: some of them from Martin Luther’s own hand, like Ein feste Burg. He may have been a spiritual bruiser but he had an ear for good tunes. And Ein feste Burg is good – especially as it was sung here, in a way I’d never heard before.
In Wittenberg, where Luther (maybe) nailed his theses to the church door, spiritual tourists get coerced by earnest Lutherans, invariably American, to join spontaneous street renditions of Ein feste Burg that always turn out like a battle hymn: foursquare and monumental, with a touch of menace. But the Clare performance ran to lighter, almost dancing rhythms that I’m told are the original notation circa 1520.
Hearing it, you could believe that Luther had some possibility of charm about him. But perhaps that’s going too far. Britain has a lot of seriously good young conductors these days, and a prime example is Oliver Zeffman, who runs his own orchestra, the Melos Sinfonia, and puts on ambitious concerts like the one at LSO St Luke’s last week, which included Julian Anderson’s violin concerto In lieblicher Bläue.
I use the term concerto loosely because this piece, written three years ago, doesn’t demand that its soloist make a heroic stand against the orchestra in true concerto style: it’s more a meditation – on a poem by Hölderlin that supplies the title – and to that extent it treads the kind of ground that Vaughan Williams does in his Lark Ascending, with a corresponding kind of drowsy, saturated magic but belonging to the early 21st century rather than Vaughan Williams’s early 20th.
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