IN: Reviews

Dove’s Köthener Messe Builds on Bach


Great choruses take risks and succeed when they shed new light on the choral art, and Chorus pro Musica has established a solid reputation by presenting innovative new works throughout its 60 seasons. The March 14, 2009 evening concert at Boston’s Church of the Covenant featured the Köthener Messe (2002), a recent work of American composer Jonathan Dove based on motivic and biographical details of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The composer’s notes developed a portrait of Bach during his years in Köthen. This dreamy meditation about the creative process and the typical Baroque practice of re-imagining musical materials introduced a piece that is at once Baroque and modern. Some of the fragments are immediately audible: bits of the E minor Prelude fuse with a Kyrie and melodies from other Weimar instrumental works drift in and out of the Kyrie and Gloria. In the light-hearted Benedictus, the tenor soloist is interrupted by “a pupil…playing the B-flat major Prelude, but his left hand has started on the wrong note.”

Although the work takes advantage of recent compositional conventions such as dissonant clusters, vocal slides, and extended chromaticism, many concert-goers were reminded of the restrained, later sacred works of Igor Stravinsky. Well-articulated accents from the chorus brought out musical, rather than literary elements of the Latin texts, and the more elegiac sections, such as the moving Agnus Dei, recalled the haunting dissonances of Arvo Pärt. Terry Halco’s harpsichord playing provided a constant thread of Bach’s own music that unifies the work, and the insistent repetition of fragments from the Brandenburg concertos gave the Gloria a minimalist quality.

Unlike the Lutheran masses Bach wrote, Dove’s mass includes a Sanctus and Agnus Dei, and as such becomes a clever not-so-Missa Brevis uniting musicians from disparate centuries. In the process of re-composing Baroque fragments, Bach’s genius for melody, often hidden in ornate inner lines, is revealed.

Framing the Köthener Messe, Bach’s Cantata No. 161 “Komm, de süße Todesstunde” and Handel’s sparkling Dixit Dominus gave the choir and conductor Michael Driscoll opportunities to make the most of the dramatic space. Driscoll, making his debut concert appearance with the CpM in this performance, led Bach’s Weimar cantata with interpretive grace, evoking a restrained sound from the full ensemble and skillfully handling the delicate orchestration in the solo movements.

Mezzo soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore’s smooth, mellow interpretation of the opening aria “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” blended beautifully with Roy Sansom and Roxanne Layton’s sensitive recorder duet. Her recitative “Der Schluß ist schon gemacht” was strangely free of pathos, treating the text more instrumentally and sometimes disappearing into the full ensemble. Driscoll allowed a fresh interpretation of the text and presenting a purely pastoral resurrection scene: Rentz-Moore’s “schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag” (“Strike, strike, o final hour”) was clear, light, and almost humorous.

Tenor Frank Kelley’s recitative and aria “Der Schluß ist schon gemacht” provided the dramatic center of the work. Driscoll’s choice to add bass to the secco accompaniment darkened the mood of the sorrowful introduction. The da capo aria that followed was overshadowed by Kelley’s expressive delivery of the recitative text, a masterful series of transitions showcasing Bach’s ability to move from simple declamation, to virtuosity, to  a brief but emotional cello solo by Marc Moskowitz.

The penultimate chorus was presented in a light minuet tempo, concluding the cantata with a double concerto. The final chorale is lushly scored and remarkable for its busyness. Rather than simply supporting the voices, the recorders are clearly delineated, softening Bach’s contrapuntal writing, which can overwhelm the listener. According to Peter Pulsifer’s detailed program notes, this chorale tune was a favorite of Bach’s, appearing not only in the St. Matthew Passion and other sacred works, but also as a melodic source for most of the preceding movements of Cantata No. 161. Dove’s Kyrie and Agnus Dei from the Köthener Messe also reference the same theme.

Bach and Handel may be considered giants of High Baroque music, but Driscoll and the Chorus pro Musica emphasized their humanity, making their music warmer and approachable. Handel’s early work Dixit Dominus, composed in his early twenties during his first visit to Rome, featured the excellent diction of the chorus in a surprisingly light, transparent interpretation. Performers usually take every opportunity to sing Handel’s exclamations of religious fervor with as much pomp and fervor as possible; in this work, Chorus pro Musica instead let the harmonic suspensions and text repetition propel the work forward, allowing the resonance of the hall to add richness and depth to the sound, without overwhelming the listener.

Soprano Susan Consoli’s aria “Tecum principium” was operatic in conception, requiring mastery of both the middle and high registers. Here Handel showed his devotion to the typical Italian operatic writing of his contemporaries, even though opera was technically banned by the Pope at the time of this composition. The virtuosity Handel demanded of his singers is evident here, with Consoli skillfully navigating long melismatic passages and minimizing ornaments in the central section of the piece. In her solo with chorus, “Judicabit in nationibus,” the strings are so hushed that the vocal entrances seem to emerge a cappella: then the movement builds to a dramatic and effective setting of “conquassabit capita” in which the ensemble separates every syllable to “scatter the skulls” of the conquered throughout the aural space.

Although the final doxology (“Gloria patri”) was not listed or translated in the program, Handel’s quick shifts in this final triumphant section among many different choral textures show his early mastery of word painting and contrapuntal complexity. The concluding choral “Amens” cascaded through the sanctuary, blending seamlessly with the instrumental writing and bringing the concert to a youthful, brilliant conclusion.

Laura Stanfield Prichard is the Director of Fine Arts for the Arlington Public Schools and a member of the music faculty at U Mass-Lowell. She is a regular pre-concert speaker for Boston Baroque, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the San Francisco Symphony.

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  1. Jonathan Dove is in fact an English composer.

    Comment by K Bowtell — September 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

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