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Washington Bach Consort at Strathmore

This review appeared originally on DCist (Washington Bach Consort Opens Season, September 24).

Washington Bach Consort, Strathmore, September 23, 2005
One of Washington's musical treasures is the Washington Bach Consort, a group of singers and instrumentalists directed by J. Reilly Lewis. The group began, in 1977, with local musicians who were devoted to the performance of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. After three European concert tours, beginning in the 1980s, and countless critically praised concerts culminating in a landmark appearance at the Library of Congress last April, the WBC has become an institution, recognized far beyond the boundries of the District of Columbia. Over that long history, who knows how many times J. Reilly Lewis has conducted the work that is, in our opinion, the summa of Bach's choral compositions, the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. Enough times, to be sure, that when leading his group last night at Strathmore, he conducted without the aid of a score. However, there was nothing routine about this performance, because Lewis and his musicians try to make something new each time they perform a work by Bach, even this most familiar work.

The Consort enjoys the attention of a devoted audience, sometimes bordering on the overzealous side of Bachophilia (a necessary quality behind the desire to subscribe to an entire season of mostly Bach's music), and they were out in force for this appearance at Strathmore. While most of the seats were filled, with a few empty places in the expensive front section, it struck me, even in Row F, that the rarefied WBC sound is perhaps better served by a more resonant church or a smaller hall (the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress was ideal, as it is for most chamber groups) than the more cavernous hall at Strathmore. We heard everything, but the acoustic seemed to swallow some of the edges. It's the start of a new season, which means that there were some new faces in the chorus, and one striking absence. Although the group's Web site still lists Gisèle Becker as Assistant Conductor, she was missing from the soprano section and her name was not mentioned in the program. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but for a few years now she has been directing her own group, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and this could be the final parting of the ways between Reilly and Gigi. If so, an era has ended.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Bach Consort's Perfect Setting (Washington Post, September 26)
The 25 minutes of the Kyrie (in three large sections, with an embarrassingly long pause after the first one for late seating) flew by very quickly. The Christe movement featured the first sounds of nicely matched twin sopranos (the vocal soloists are also divided into five parts), Suzie LeBlanc on the first part and Rosa Lamoreaux (whom I have heard recently with Hesperus and ArcoVoce) on the second. There were a few minor intonation problems in the orchestra, which appeared to be ironed out by the time we got to the Gloria. That is, except for the oboes, modeled on historical instruments which are difficult to control, where less pleasant sounds, especially in the lower range, were more common (with a very noticeable slip in the second oboe occurring in the middle of the Et in Spiritum Sanctum movement).

Soloists, Washington Bach Consort, September 23, 2005The vocal soloists were all very effective, with Belgian countertenor Patrick Van Goethem being an especially rewarding discovery for us. Tenor Alan Bennett was exceptional, especially in those moments were Bach calls for a light, flexible sound in a rather high range, as in the fiendishly difficult Benedictus movement, which was beautiful. Bass Sanford Sylvan had a good sound, unfortunately combined with an exaggerated, mannered sense of diction and a tendency to slide up and especially down intervals of a fifth or larger. The bass's arias in the Mass are the least interesting, in our opinion, and the strangest orchestration. This is especilly true of the Quoniam tu solus sanctus movement, with a natural horn player performing the corno di caccia part in the score. R. J. Kelley did a fine job of getting the best sound he could out of this rather disagreeable instrument. (Commentators on my review of a WBC concert in Fall 2004, which also featured natural horns, gave me flack for claiming that these instruments are played with the bell upward. It turns out that I had indeed remembered correctly: this horn is not played with the fist in the bell but overtones appear to be manipulated with a small finger-button.)

The 30 choral singers were arranged in a single-row horseshoe behind the chamber orchestra, by section. When Bach divides his chorus into five parts, this divides the large soprano section in half, to cover the two soprano parts, resulting in a slightly weakened sound in those movements. Probably as a result, the highest notes sung in the work, high A's and even a few high B's, were not all that could be hoped. The B minor Mass is a work of idealism, not intended to be performed in an actual liturgy. In that sense, Bach experiments with vocal textures, among other things, by bringing together pieces, many of them composed in previous eras of his career, for 5-part chorus (two soprano parts, the choral arrangement preferred in the Catholic city of Dresden, where Bach was interested in working later in life), 6-part chorus (two soprano and two alto parts), various combinations of solo voices, and even 8-part cori spezzati (divided chorus), as well as traditional 4-part chorus. Without a lot of shuffling of singers between movements, there is no ideal way to arrange the singers to accommodate all of those textures.

Like many of the late Bach works, the Mass is a compendium of compositional styles, a sort of encyclopedia of 18th-century church music. In the opening statement of the Kyrie, Bach paraphrases Martin Luther's Kyrie melody from the Deutsche Messe. Later, he also sets Gregorian chant Credo melodies in cantus firmus style in the Symbolum Nicenum movement. (If only Bach had been able to go to Dresden late in his life: Catholic church music would have never been the same.) He includes choral movements in strict stile antico counterpoint, looking backward to the Renaissance, and more modern pieces for soloists, representing newer trends. One of the best reasons to listen to Bach's Mass is the chance to hear the choral movement Et incarnatus est, one of the last pieces composed for this composite work. This little jewel in the heart of the Mass was exquisite in this performance, breathtaking in its simplicity.

For another performance by the full Bach Consort, you will have to wait until December 4 (Sunday, 3 p.m.), for their Christmas concert at their normal venue, National Presbyterian Church. Members of the Washington Bach Consort also give monthly free concerts, on Tuesdays at lunchtime (beginning at 12:10 p.m.), in the Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Sts. NW, near Metro Center). This fall, they will present three of these noontime cantata concerts, on October 4 (Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25), November 1 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174), and December 6 (Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45).

UPDATE (from comments):
A singer with the Bach Consort has just written to confirm that Gigi Becker has indeed "retired as co-director of the Bach Consort, mainly to focus on her teaching, performing, and own group, Cantate." I was not jumping to conclusions.


Charles T. Downey said...

A singer with the Bach Consort has just written to confirm that Gigi Becker has indeed "retired as co-director of the Bach Consort, mainly to focus on her teaching, performing, and own group, Cantate." I was not jumping to conclusions.

Garth Trinkl said...

the choral arrangement preferred in the Catholic city of Dresden

Charles, this isn't quite correct. While Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, converted to Catholicism in 1697 so that he could become King of Poland, the city of Dresden (and Dresden-Neustadt across the Elbe River) remained strongly Protestant. In fact, the Elector was using his small Royal Chapel for Catholic services at the time that the great Protestant Frauenkirche (rebuilding completed in 2005 following destruction in February 1945 by British and American aircraft) was originated. That Protestant Cathedral was first opened in 1743.

In an attempt to counterbalance the Protestant Cathedral, designed by George Bähr and commissioned by the Dresden city-council, and the other Protestant churches of Dresden, Dresden-Neustadt, and elsewhere on the Elbe (including the former Gothic city and Cathedral of Meissen which had been a Bishop's seat), Augustus the Strong's son, Augustus III, beginning after his ascension to the throne in 1733 (and to the Polish throne in 1735), secretly made plans for the largest Cathedral in Saxony, and retained the services of Italian architect Gaetano Chiaveri. The Dresden Court Cathedral -- the Hofkirche (Church of the Court), was built between 1738 and 1751 in high baroque style. (Catholic Italians had been in Saxony -- especially Dresden and Leipzig -- since the mid-17th century, but could not openly practice the Catholic liturgy.)

Bach must have been greatly excited by this renaissance of Protestant and Catholic Cathedral architecture taking place nearby to him -- he in Leipzig, the renaissance building in Dresden -- as he approached the end of his life. Does it truly matter that he wrote his "Catholic" B minor Mass, and died one year before, the completion of Dresden's Catholic Cathedral? As you point out, I think that he imagined a performance of his great Mass in the Dresden Court Cathedral (Catholic) -- his Mass an ideal Christian statement complementing the ideal musical statement of his Art of the Fugue.

(I also think that it is interesting that while both the Hofkirche and the Frauenkirche (and the great opera house), were destroyed in 1945, the communists decided in the 1970s to rebuild the opera house and allow for the rebuilding of the Hofkirche, but not the Frauenkirche; the ruins of which would be left as a memorial to the tragedy of war and fascism. The decision to rebuild the Frauenkirche was made only after reunification, in the 1990s. The reconstructed Frauenkirche will be consecrated in October 2005, just in time for Dresden's 800th anniversary in 2006.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you, Garth, for an important clarification. While most scholars agree that the work is in the Catholic spirit, perhaps out of interest in what was happening in Dresden, Bach did alter the text slightly, to reflect Lutheran practice, too. On the Frauenkirche, see this post from last summer, about the restoration.

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for the comment about the text alteration. I'll check my
Michael Marissen reference works about this. (I studied Bach under Lawrence Moe too many years ago for me to remember this clearly.)



Princess Alpenrose said...

You guys are SO interesting!

I think Garth has become our resident historian, and I thank him for taking on that role so capably.