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27.9.04

Washington Bach Consort Opens 28th Season

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, 18th centuryThe death of composer Johann Kuhnau meant that the Leipzig City Council had to fill the position of Kantor of St. Thomas Church, which Kuhnau had held from 1701 to 1722, with a suitable candidate. They really wanted Georg Philipp Telemann, who had worked previously in Leipzig, but he ended up accepting a salary increase from his employer in Hamburg, where he really wanted to stay. The council next tried to engage Christoph Graupner, who was educated in Leipzig and was quite successful in his position as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt. Graupner wanted the job but could not convince his employer to release him from his contract. That left only the least desireable, third candidate, an organist with a good if provincial reputation from the jobs he had held around Eisenstadt but whose compositions were not well known. His name was Johann Sebastian Bach.

One of the best listening opportunities in the Washington musical world is the Washington Bach Consort. This chorus and instrumental ensemble is probably the best performing group with a specialized repertory resident in the nation's capital. For the first concert of their 28th season, yesterday afternoon (September 26) at the National Presbyterian Church, the Bach Consort presented a program called "Leipzig Legacy," with works by former Thomaskantor Kuhnau, and the three candidates to replace him, Telemann, Graupner, and of course J. S. Bach. The idea is ingenious, and the execution was superb.

The first piece was a Concerto for Two Horns in F (TWV 52:F 3), which had never been performed in the Americas until yesterday, according to the introduction of the Bach Consort's director, J. Reilly Lewis. The soloists, R. J. Kelley and John Boden, played on natural horns, instruments that have no valves and are not as powerful as their modern descendants. As a result, they are played with the bell turned upward and outward, to maximize the sound production. This concerto is a charming piece in four movements. The opening Largo is really just a brief introduction to the following Allegro. For the most part, Telemann has the two soloists play together almost exclusively, with only a few examples of contrapuntal interplay. The instrument almost requires a composer to use some hunting-call motifs, which are heard in the second movement, sometimes when the orchestra and continuo are all given rests, allowing the horns to play alone. The slow movement (a graceful triple-meter Siciliana) provided the opportunity for the impressively skilled soloists to introduce a number of ornaments, and you can imagine the effect of a trill on a valveless brass instrument. The concluding Allegro has a rollicking, folksy character, complete with a drone-like accompaniment.

The first sound the Bach Consort chorus made was Johann Kuhnau's motet for Holy Week, Tristis est anima mea, which they sang from the sacristy (behind the organ wall) without instrumental accompaniment. Each phrase of text is set to its own expressive music: somber homophonic chords with clashing dissonances ("My soul is sorrowful even unto death"), imitative entrances on a sustained melody ("Stay here a while and watch with me"), strong declamatory homophonic chords ("Now you shall see the mob that will surround me"), imitative entrances on a long descending melody that runs away ("You shall take flight"), and imitative entrances on a striking descending diminished seventh melody ("And I shall go to be sacrificed for you") that comes to a halt on a seventh chord in the 4/2 inversion (on the word "immolari"). When the piece was done, organist Scott Dettra played an ornamented version of the motet on the portative organ to accompany the singers from the back of the church to their risers.

This prevented applause, so that we could appreciate the next piece, J. S. Bach's motet Der Gerechte kommt um, composed later in Leipzig, which is a concerted adaptation of Kuhnau's motet. Its German text ("Now the just man is lost") also seems to be appropriate to Holy Week, and you can clearly hear the poignant themes of his predecessor's work come back in Bach's version: the "Sustinete" motif, the suspensions, and the downward leap of "Ego vadam," filled out triadically in Bach's motet, as well as the dramatic pause on the inverted seventh chord. This was the most interesting part of the concert, in my opinion.

The major duty of the Thomaskantor job was the weekly preparation of a cantata for Sunday performance. The remaining two pieces of the concert's first half were examples of the "audition cantatas" that both Graupner and Bach submitted to the Leipzig Town Council when they applied for the job. Although in his position at Darmstadt, Graupner composed mostly solo cantatas, his cantata Aus der Tiefen rufen wir (Out of the depths we call) is predominantly for chorus, which was the sort of work that was needed in Leipzig. The first movement is a broad homophonic ABA form for chorus, setting a very personal text about suffering in life and waiting for death. The second movement is a set of recitatives and ariosos for tenor, chorus, soprano, and bass, in which we are transported to that final moment of death and seek the support of God in our trial. This sets up a refrain-like return of the A section of the opening chorus ("Aus der Tiefen rufen wir Gott") and the arrival of the third movement ("Brunnquell der Gnaden") introduced by the soprano and alto soloists but mostly sung by the chorus. The instrumental ritornello that introduces the last movement has a very strange syncopated effect in the violins: in a fast triple meter, they have short notes, in separate measures, on beats 1 then 2 then 3. The effect is unsettling but also humorously uplifting.

Bach's audition cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23), one of two he submitted, is strikingly different from the Graupner cantata and does a great job of showing the choice the Leipzig Town Council had to make. Bach's cantata is intense, dark, and personal in tone, and its musical devices—such as vocal counterpoint and the use of the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes (a German adaptation of the Gregorian ordinary chant Agnus dei)—are far more complex and challenging to singers and listeners. The first movement, an aria for soprano and alto soloists, has a gorgeous instrumental ritornello that introduces the contrapuntal solo parts. The chorale is played by the orchestra to accompany the second movement, a recitative for tenor soloist. The third movement features the chorus answering solo lines, which Bach tends to use to highlight the individual lines of the text (as at "Und die meinen sonderlich," or "And mine own especially"). Bach later incorporated this cantata's beautiful final movement, a concerted setting of the same chorale melody, into his St. John's Passion.

The second half of the concert began with Scott Dettra playing Bach's Toccata in E Major (BWV 566) from the church's large main organ. This piece is fairly typical of the toccata genre, as it is divided into several short sections in different styles, including two large fugal sections. Mr. Dettra is a recent addition to the musical life of Washington. In addition to his work with the Bach Consort, he plays for the Cathedral Choral Society and Episcopal High School in Alexandria. You should be glad he is here, because the man can play. The first fugal section of this toccata was played at an incredibly fast tempo and with remarkable accuracy.

To fit with the ingenious idea of the program, giving the audience the chance to hear the three candidates for the Leipzig position side by side, it would have been more interesting to hear an example of Telemann's cantatas. Director J. Reilly Lewis explained his choice of the concerto for two horns, which opened the program, as a desire to feature the two horn soloists, who also played for the secular cantata that concluded the program, Bach's Dramma per musica: Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (BWV 213), more commonly known as Herkules auf dem scheidewege (Hercules at the crossroads). This quasi-operatic piece (the closest Bach ever was to composing an opera, at any rate), on a text by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) was composed in 1733 to be performed in the Leipzig coffee garden run by Gottfried Zimmermann.

J. Reilly LewisFor the Bach Consort's performance, J. Reilly Lewis conducted while playing some of the continuo parts on the portative organ, while Scott Dettra played the other continuo parts from the harpsichord. After an opening chorus, most of this cantata consists of arias and recitatives for the four vocal soloists, the most famous of which is Hercules's aria Treues Echo dieser Orten (Faithful Echo of these places). The oboe obbligato part was echoed by the first oboist, who was off in one of the transepts, and the vocal solo (Patricia Green) was echoed by one of the choral singers, Gisèle Becker, who was behind the pulpit. This aria, as well as most of the music from this secular cantata, were reused by Bach in the fourth part of his Christmas Oratorio. In my opinion, the music is used to much greater effect in its sacred setting, and the inanity of the secular text may have been part of the reason why Bach wanted to use this music again.

All in all, this was an excellent performance. The Bach Consort is still providing Washington the chance to hear historically informed and beautiful renditions of the works of Bach and the rest of the 18th century. J. Reilly Lewis, the master of color and texture, brought out the finest details from his musicians with his often strange gestures. The horn soloists and all four vocal soloists (Jacqueline Horner, Patricia Green, Joseph Gaines, and James Weaver) performed well. There were a few moments of rhythmic disunity, in the third movement of Du wahrer Gott, for example, all of which were quickly righted. What I did miss in this performance was ornamentation, especially on all of those da capo repeats of A sections, and particularly from the vocal soloists.

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