The life of Christ is measured out in Bach cantatas, and it starts with the Christmas Oratorio, half of which was performed at our Anglican parish church on Saturday.
It was a curiously old-fashioned evening. The church was full; the excellent Royal Leamington Spa Bach Choir was in full evening dress; the orchestra, the wonderfully named Musical and Amicable Society, played on period instruments; and the soloists, from the Birmingham Conservatoire, were full of appropriate gravitas.
What is it about soloists at choral concerts which prevents them from engaging fully with the music? They sit proudly at the front, they stand when they have to sing, and when they do, they do it beautifully. But when they have no role, which is the majority of the time, they stare fixedly to the front without betraying any emotion or enjoyment.
I assume that they are trained to do this: no eye contact with any member of the audience, no relationship with fellow-soloists, no movement, merely an occasional sideways glance at the conductor. In the slim figure of Jeremy Budd, our tenor and recitative on Saturday, this apparent distancing was particularly marked. With aquiline nose, oiled dark hair, and immaculately pressed tails, he reminded me of a haughty public school prefect or a supercilious maître d’. When he marched to his seat, he looked almost arrogant.
Until he sang. Because when he sang, he sang like an angel. The recitative recreates the rhythms of ordinary speech, but he transcended this limitation: these narrative links were as impressive as the great choral set-pieces.
Bach at All Saints was the third weekend in succession during which I have been able to immerse myself in good music. Last weekend, of course, I saw Bob Dylan at Hammersmith – an event which was, in its own way, as much a celebration as is the Christmas Oratorio.
Two weekends ago, we were in The Somerville Arms, a proper pub without a theme in sight, to see The Swaps. This is one of those occasions, of which there were once many, when talented local musicians perform, primarily for themselves but incidentally for those who are taking a glass in the same place, at the same time. The Swaps – individually and collectively – are now better than this and the dates of their gigs are recorded in diaries and iPhone calendars, so they manage to fill The Somerville on a cold Sunday night – despite (or perhaps because of) a clash with The X Factor results show.
The Swaps is, currently, a five piece band but it is based on the work of James (guitar) and Chris (bass), whom I first saw perform as a duo at an open mike night in The Star and Garter a couple or three years ago. Now joined by an excellent drummer, a superb harmonica player, and the wonderful Beth Brooks on vocals, they play a set which includes their own compositions as well as a repertoire of covers which ranges from Blondie to Jefferson Airplane.
It’s all good stuff, eclectic and diverse. It’s musically accomplished. And it’s fun. It’s exactly why we should keep music live.
My vast collection of CDs, iTunes, Spotify – I am grateful for all these, and there is something playing all the time in my office or through my headphones.
But give me The Swaps at The Somerville any day.
Today's listening: a great show from Jefferson Starship in BB King's in New York last month, with a fiddler who sounds just like Papa John. "Occupy BB King's!"