Review: Solomon’s Knot at the Barbican Bach Weekend 2018

For the uninitiated, Solomon’s Knot is a collective of singers specialising in early and baroque music, mostly performed without scores or a conductor.

What results is an immediate connection between performer and audience. Free of the usual constraints that momentarily severs attention, SK’s performers maintain focus in their performance helping create a fresh and invigorating sound.

But they’re also a lean conscientious collection of performers too. This creates a clarity of sound which combined with their nimble strategy means they’re able to respond with more agility than a larger chorus would, providing opportunities for greater dynamic contrast, a lighter sound.

However, listen to a performance of theirs and you won’t necessarily feel as though you’ve heard something ‘authentic’ in the strict definition of the word.

Artistic director Jonathan Sells explains in an interview for this blog published later this week that SK’s apporoach is more historically informed performance than authentic. I think that’s something which releases the performers from the weight of expectation that heavily researched authentic interpretations often impose.

The precision today’s performers brought to phrasing and range of textures both as soloists and as an ensemble appealed to my OCD tendencies. Importantly the attention required wasn’t over-engineered. In their performance, the complexity of the performance is kept well back so the beauty of the music can shine. That they did all of this without succombing to the usual looks of self-satisfaction singers performing from memory often exchange with another only serves to underline what makes them an appealing proposition.

The flip side is that the performance seems so natural that it doesn’t take long before we forget what it is they’re actually doing without. Might we end up taking their achievement for granted?

At nearly 80 minutes of music this was a marathon event. The programme combined works by JC Bach with settings of the same text by the younger JS Bach. I found I was more attentive to the lesser known JC Bach settings who appeared to adopt more arresting cadences. The opening ‘Furchte dich nicht‘ was a special treat comprising trademark laser-like articulation, and an effortless blending of voices.

There were similarly smooth legatos to be heard JS Bach’s setting of the same text. Here too the first demonstration of another benefit of performing from memory. By ditching scores and a conductor and complimenting vocal lines with naturalistic non-verbal communication intent shifts at breakneck speed. This was first evident in the section ‘Herr, mein Hirt‘. A change in physical movement amongst the performers changed the mood almost immediately, providing a dramatic contrast with the material that had gone before. 

The core to the event – JS Bach’s setting of ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ BMV 227 – was a considerable undertaking. Twenty-five maybe thirty minutes of music. A mammoth undertaking which sometimes felt like it might have been too much. But the concluding ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied‘ set us on our way with in a suitably celebratory mood.  

A big hand to soprano Clare Lloyd-Griffiths for a crystalline voice and sophisticated physical presence. Also, mezzo-soprano Kate Symonds-Joy, who deployed a sassy kind of style to her performance.  

Solomon’s Knot have something special: a memorable name, a USP backed up with talent to deliver it, and a hungry audience wanting more. I can’t remember the last time I heard a capacity audience whoop with appreciation. Solomon’s Knot also have record producers from major labels interested in them too. An artistic endeavour to keep an eye out for as they command the attention of an ever-wider audience. 

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.

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