The First Church Congregational in Cambridge was the venue on Friday, July 30 for a delightful concert of vocal and instrumental chamber music by the faculty and guest artists of the 17th International Baroque Institute at Longy. The church, which is being pressed into service while Pickman Hall at Longy is undergoing renovation for improved acoustics, is large and spacious, with a large audience area, a single balcony, and very high ceilings. Some years ago the absorptive surfaces in the ceiling were painted over in an attempt to increase the reverberation time – mostly to enhance the sound of the Frobenius organ (which Peter Sykes played so admirably last Monday which I reviewed here.
Alas – the size and reverberation time was way beyond what chamber music requires. Past the fifth or sixth row of the audience the sound was – putting it optimistically – “very well blended.” There were many audience members beyond this distance. They surely enjoyed the concert, but I am not sure how much of it they actually heard. I was lucky to get a seat in the center of the third row, where I had a good chance of hearing most everything. Indeed, Almost all the string instruments, and the beautiful voice of Ricard Bordas, countertenor, carried well. The baroque flute – played marvelously by Jed Wentz, lacks both the rich complement of upper harmonics and the directionality of the other instruments. His sound tended to get swallowed up in the acoustics, blurring the fast runs and trills, even for my seat in row three. He would have had better luck standing in front of the open lid of the harpsichord, which would have caught some of the sound before it added to the reverberation.
Acoustics aside, the concert was a delight. The first half consisted almost entirely of works by J.S. Bach. Gonzalo Ruiz, baroque oboe, reconstructed an oboe concerto from the Overture in A minor BWV 1067, orchestrated for all the strings: violinists Robert Mealy and Tatiana Daubek, violist Audrey Selph, cellist Phoebe Carrai, violonist Mai-Lan Broekman, and harpsichordist Arthur Haas. The six sections demonstrated the virtuosity of all the players, with lighting-fast allegros and very expressive slower movements. The second piece was a Gavotte from the Lute Suite in G minor, BWV 995, an arrangement by Bach of the well-known violoncello suite BWV 1011 for the late Baroque lute that has 14 fretted strings, and 11 non-fretted bass strings. The bass strings played the bass line – the strong bottom of the arpeggios in the cello – while the melodies and harmonies played out on the frets. Bach was able to fill out the harmonies that are only suggested in the cello suite. It looked like Stubbs could have used a few more fingers. But it was great to hear this sonata in a completely new form.
A real treat followed. Ricard Bordas sang the alto aria from Cantata “Bereitet die Wege, bereited die Bahn!” BWV 132. Bordas’ countertenor tone is entirely natural, the timbre of a tenor, but in a higher register. There is none of the thin falsetto wheeze more commonly heard. He can sing – and usually does sing – completely without vibrato, only occasionally using a very light vibrato to great expressive effect. Arthur Hass played continuo on a small organ. Bordas could match the organ tone precisely – but with wonderful dynamic variation – when the text required it.
Phoebe Carrai followed with a performance of the Allemande from the Suite in D Major, BWV 1012, playing on a five-string cello. Switching from four to five strings seems quite difficult – but she brought it off fine. The last piece on the first half was the C.P.E. Bach Trio Sonata in C major Wq 149 for Baroque flute ( Jed Wentz), violin (Robert Mealy, and continuo (Phoebe Carrai and Arthur Haas). Wentz played with great virtuosity and expression, although hearing all the high-speed notes in this acoustic was often impossible.
The pieces in the second half of the concert were mostly by other members of the Bach family. The jewel for me was the Lamento – “Ach, dass ich Wassers genug Hatte” by Johan Christoph Bach (1646-1703). The text is of the anguish of a sinner over his deeds and the coming Judgment. The harmonies are richly chromatic, reminiscent of Purcell, but with the text sensitivity of Schutz. Richard Bordas gave a heart-rending performance.