It’s essentially a collaborative venture with joint, rather than hierarchical, decision-making, and the musicians achieving their impressive precision of ensemble more by listening and responding to each other than by following a single leader.
Performing, as is their wont, from memory, they brought their signature blend of punctiliousness and spontaneity to bear on a programme in their ongoing Bach 300 series. This celebrates the fact that Johann Sebastian took up his cantorial duties at St Thomas’s Leipzig exactly three centuries ago.
The November and December of 1723 in fact marked Bach’s first advent and Christmas in the post – he was to stay there for the rest of his life – and he set out his stall with the exhilarating Magnificat in E flat (given here with the Christmas interpolations), deploying the largest forces available to him at that time: three trumpets, timpani, recorders, oboes, bassoons, strings and continuo, plus a five-part chorus instead of the usual four.
That’s a lot of musicians to accommodate on the Wigmore platform, but again speaks to the interlacing of the Solomon’s Knot from which they take their name. It’s almost invidious to single out particular singers in such a collaborative endeavour, but Alex Ashworth’s Quia Fecit was outstanding, as were the contributions of the other bass, Jonathan Sells (the nominal director), and countertenor Michal Czerniawski, both here and elsewhere in the programme.
In the first half, we had two cantatas composed by Bach for Advent 1723: O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60, and Wachet! Betet!, BWV 70. The former departs from the usual model of recitative and arias for a solo voice (occasionally duets) to present two allegorical figures, Fear and Hope, debating their attitudes to death. While Fear sees the jaws of hell gaping wide to greet the sinner that he admits to being, Hope has a more optimistic outlook based on his faith in the Saviour.
Wachet! Betet! also polarises terror and joy in contemplation of the Last Judgment, but there was no attempt here at dramatisation as such, not that there would have been room for it. The performances were first-rate and it’s excellent news that Solomon’s Knot has begun a residency at the hall.