Proms benefits from Primrose Hill presence

Harry Bicket reconnects with his past conducting Bach Mass at Proms

�Among the highlights of the Proms during the next few weeks is a Bach B Minor Mass conducted by Harry Bicket – the period-performance specialist (and Primrose Hill resident) who for the past five years has been in charge of that most celebrated period band, the English Concert.

Stamping his own personality on an ensemble long associated with its founder Trevor Pinnock can’t have been particularly easy. But one thing that Bicket has been noted for is re-establishing the English Concert Choir, which had fallen by the wayside but is now back in business with dates like this Prom – to be televised live on BBC4. And if nothing else, it’s an opportunity for Bicket to reconnect with his past, which was more to do with voices than orchestras.

An Oxford organ scholar, he spent his formative years in cathedral music, working at Windsor and Westminster Abbey. After that, he shifted toward opera – at the Coliseum and at Glyndebourne where he got his big break in the 1990s, stepping in to conduct the production of Handel’s Theodora that will always be remembered for the stage-filling presence of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Launched as a serious Handelian, he went on to conduct Orlando at the ROH. And in the recent past he’s done Rinaldo in Chicago, Rodelinda at the New York Met, Alcina in Bordeaux...the list runs on.

But Bach (Handel’s exact contemporary) is a Bicket speciality too. He’s just been doing the B Minor Mass in Bach’s own church, the Leipzig Thomaskirche. And in Leipzig, as he says, “this repertory is in their blood, they feel it’s theirs”.

Leipzig’s claim on this particular piece, though, is loose – because there’s no clear evidence that it was ever done complete there during Bach’s time. In fact, there’s no evidence of a complete performance anywhere until a hundred years after his death.

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As Bicket says, “one of the wonderful things about the Mass is that it’s such a mysterious work”; and one of the mysteries is why Bach, a Lutheran protestant, should have written a Catholic Mass-setting at all.

What’s more, he seems to have put it together like a patchwork quilt, from old material written sometimes years before, over the span of his creative life – which makes it like a showcase of his whole development as a composer.

“The challenge of performing it”, says Bicket, “is to deal with the way the musical language keeps changing and create a coherence that pulls everything together”.

Yet another challenge, though, is to perform it in a vast space like the Albert Hall, during a Prom, and with an interval midway. “A lot of people won’t be happy with that interval”, he says. “They’ll take it as a kind of sacrilege”.

My own view is that, in such circumstances, it’s futile to get over-exercised by the minutiae of “authenticity”. As serious period-performers, Bicket and his English Concert will of course be scholarly in their approach. But there’s an awful lot about a modern broadcast concert Bach could never have envisaged or prepared for in his music. Not least, microphones and TV cameras.

“Make sure that they get your best side”, I tell Bicket.

“That will be the last thing on my mind”, he says. A man of sound priorities.

B Bach’s B Minor Mass at the Albert Hall, Thursday, August 2, 7.30: 0845 4015040. Also live on Radio 3 and BBC4.