The Exsultemus Ensemble opened its 2009-2010 Concert Season with an attractive program devoted to 17th– and 18th-century sacred music from the city of Hamburg. (Three other traditional German musical centers – Darmstadt, Leipzig, and Dresden – will be featured later this season.) The program focused on the three composers who defined Hamburg’s musical life in their respective periods: Matthias Weckmann and Christoph Bernhard, the two star pupils of Heinrich Schütz, from the mid-17th century and Georg Philipp Telemann, the dominant figure in the 18th century. The juxtaposition of two distinct style periods proved to be most illuminating.
The first group of pieces consisted of three sacred concertos. “Rex virtutum” by Weckmann for bass, 2 violins, and continuo was followed by “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz” for soprano, 2 violins, and continuo and “Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht in deinem Zorn” for soprano, bass, and continuo, both written by Bernhard. The performances properly stressed the rhetorical intensity and expressive declamation of these works.
At the center of the program stood Weckmann’s monumental chorale elaboration on the Lutheran hymn “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her,” one of the most extended and extraordinary organ works of the 17th century. Even though the work was not played in its entirety (five out of seven movements were selected) the scale of its sophisticated design became wonderfully apparent through the varied and powerful sound of the Richards & Fowkes organ, the very best instrument in the city of Boston for the North-German Baroque. Bálint Karosi, the organist, turned out to be a most impressive musical interpreter for this challenging piece.
The second group of vocal works introduced rarely heard Telemann works, two solo cantatas “Gott weiss, ich bin von Seufzen müde” and continuo and “Die Bosheit dreht das schnellste Rad” for from his 1731-32 cycle and the concerted psalm motet “Laudate Jehovam” for four voices and instruments. All three pieces demonstrated Telemann’s magisterial command of sacred music, his differentiated musical expressions, and his stylistically forward-looking approach.
The four singers formed a most homogeneous, transparent, and balanced vocal ensemble for the concluding motet after they had introduced themselves individually as soloists in the preceding works: Shannon Canavin with her radiant soprano, Thea Lobo with her clear mezzo, Steven Soph with his bright tenor and Ulysses Thomas with his flexible bass. The strings benefited from first violinist Tatiana Daubek’s secure guidance; Gigi Turgeon (second violin) blended in well, and the continuo group with Audrey Cienniwa (cello) and Bálint Karosi (harpsichord) provided a solid foundation. The conductorless ensemble might have benefited here and there, notably at final cadences, from an occasional waving hand or shaping gesture. On the whole, however, the performers excelled in highlighting two striking culmination points in Hamburg’s musical culture.