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Washington Bach Consort at the Library of Congress

Have I mentioned lately how much I love the Library of Congress? No matter how disappointed I am by how the American government is run and the stupid, destructive things we spend unforgivable billions on, I can always be sure that we are spending tax money on at least one good thing, and that's this monument to knowledge, the living institution that is the Library of Congress. Even so, the library's free concert series is mostly supported by private donations, and thanks to everyone who donates money, which is well spent. On Friday night, the stage of the historic Coolidge Auditorium, small enough that it is best suited to the performance of chamber music, was crowded with instrumentalists and risers for singers for the members of local choral favorite the Washington Bach Consort.

In an introduction by the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and lengthy speech by the Consort's director, J. Reilly Lewis, we learned that the Library of Congress and the Bach Consort have agreed to a new partnership, which will bring concerts by the WBC to the LOC regularly in upcoming years. In an interesting development, Reilly Lewis has agreed to donate the entire collection of more than 400 sound recordings of concerts by the Bach Consort, going back to its formation in 1977. This is significant not only because the ensemble, particularly in recent history, has turned in consistently excellent performances of the works of J. S. Bach, but also because they are the only Baroque performance group that has performed the complete choral works of Bach in the United States over its distinguished history. This collection will be a valuable listening resource, especially if it is made available over the Internet.

The concert began, predictably enough, with one of Bach's cantatas, Meine Seel' erhebt den Herren (My soul magnifies the Lord, BWV 10). This work was composed for the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on July 2, 1724, something that I am rather surprised was ever celebrated in Lutheran Leipzig. Apparently, the Mariaphobic attitudes of many Lutherans today were not yet in place in 18th-century Saxony. It is a "chorale cantata" in the sense that it quotes a cantus firmus, a melody that appears in several of the movements, but instead of a chorale, it uses a Gregorian canticle tone, the tonus peregrinus, as it was transformed into a Lutheran chorale melody. This tone was used sometimes to chant the Magnificat canticle, as it is here, in its German version:

Luke 1:46–55, plus Doxology
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae
ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent
omnes generationes [...]

Suscepit Israel puerum suum
recordatus misericordiae suae [...]

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper
et in saeculat saeculorum. Amen.
Lutheran Version:
1. Meine Seel erhebt den Herren,
Und mein Geist freuet sich Gottes, meines Heilandes;
Denn er hat seine elende Magd angesehen.
Siehe, von nun an werden mich selig preisen
alle Kindeskind.

5. Er denket der Barmherzigkeit
Und hilft seinem Diener Israel auf.

7. Lob und Preis sei Gott dem Vater und dem Sohn
Und dem Heilgen Geiste,
Wie es war im Anfang, jetzt und immerdar
Und von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit. Amen.
If you read music, here is a .PDF file of the complete score, in piano reduction. The remaining movements (other than the first, fifth, and last) have poetic texts that paraphrase the other verses of the Magnificat canticle, and they do not use the cantus firmus. Along with the B Minor Mass and the Latin version of the Magnificat (BWV 243), this piece gives me the opportunity to dream my little dream of how great it would have been if Bach had been given the last post he really wanted, at the Catholic court of Dresden. Ah, what would Bach's Stabat Mater have been like, if he had composed it in the 1740s? Or a Requiem Mass? Or the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes? Not to mention the other Marian texts, all with Gregorian chant cantus firmi, of course!

Why did Reilly Lewis choose this cantata for the Consort's debut at the Library of Congress? Because the Music Division happens to own Bach's original manuscript copy of this cantata (ML 30.8b. B2M4 case), which was on display, under careful surveillance, in the antechamber of the Coolidge Auditorium at intermission and after the concert. Some versions of the score have a trumpet part, which was used in the first, fifth, and last movements only. Probably at a later performance of the work, Bach appears to have replaced the trumpet part with oboes, which is the version that the Bach Consort performed last night. The soaring statement of the canticle tone in the fifth movement sounds glorious with that blaring trumpet, which I missed in this performance. The WBC's rendition was solid and beautiful, with excellent clarity of text and transparency of musical texture, with some uncharacteristic intonation clashes. Of the four soloists, who were all fine, alto Barbara Hollinshead stood out as the richest voice, especially in the gorgeous fifth movement. The continuo players excelled in the crazy ritornello part of the madrigalistic fourth movement, the bass aria Gewaltige stößt Gott vom Stuhl.

Elinor Remick WarrenThe instrumentalists left at intermission, leaving only the chorus and the piano with their conductor. The rest of the program presented a selection of American choral jewels, including two pieces by Elinor Remick Warren, for which the president of her society came all the way from California. This is one of the library's goals, to draw attention to the works of American composers (as mentioned in my review of Thomas Hampson's recital at the Library of Congress last fall). This is not the normal repertoire for the Bach Consort, which is always refreshing for a performing group and for those who listen to them. All ten pieces were well performed, but some stood out more than others, including Remick Warren's Gentle Love, one of her Five Songs from 1955, with its lush harmonies and California sound.

David Conte's Canticle (From the rising of the sun) (from Three Sacred Pieces, 1984) takes the last line of its text ("I will praise your name forever") literally, as it launches into an interlude for piano, four hands (for which Reilly Lewis went from his podium to assist at the piano) in minimalist style, with shifting meters, that accompanies the concluding choral "Alleluia." Also quite beautiful were pieces by Eric Whitacre (hope, faith, life, love, from 1999, set to eight words from an e. e. cummings poem), Ionarts favorite Samuel Barber (Mary Hynes, from the 1930s), and Norman Dello Joio (I Dreamed of a City Invincible, from 1984, on a Walt Whitman poem). These were all pieces that I would very much like to hear again and regularly. Thanks to this excellent concert, I learned about them. Furthermore, I was happy to hear the Consort return to Bach, in whose music they are most comfortable, for an encore of Bach's "Alles was Odem hat. lobet dem Herrn" (All that has breath, praise the Lord), the conclusion of the motet Singet dem Herrn (BWV 225), which I gladly would have sat and listened to in its entirety.

The unofficial early music festival continues at the Library of Congress next Friday (April 22 at 8 pm), with harpsichordist David Cates in an all-Bach program. Ionarts will be there.

See also Joan Reinthaler's review (Bach Consort, Leaping Easily Into the 20th Century at LOC, April 18) in the Washington Post.

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