in: Reviews

November 28, 2010

Soloists Shine for Winsor

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Peggy Pearson’s Winsor Music chamber music series has always produced fine events at the Follen Community Church in Lexington, events that are a pleasure even in the capricious elliptical acoustics of the small sanctuary. The program Saturday night, Nov. 27, of Bach and Stravinsky, was no exception, and Peggy Pearson is one of the best oboists anywhere.

Bach’s E-flat major Trio Sonata, BWV 525, succeeds very well in an arrangement for oboe, violin, and continuo, though many of us know it better as the first of the six sonatas for organ, written by Bach for the education of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, around 1727. Organists love these sonatas for their challenging difficulty — they exercise the total independence of hands and feet — but especially for their first-rate musical interest, because all six are delightful and superbly structured. (In my in-progress book on melody, I discuss the ophidian theme of the second movement of this sonata; in just two measures it changes direction nineteen times.) The violinist in this confident performance was young Yuki Beppu, born in Tokyo in 1997 and resident in the USA since 1999; a student in the prep department at NEC, she has played in many local events, and we certainly look forward to more. Continuo was provided by Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello (he played in all three works on the program), and Michael Beattie, harpsichord.

Stravinsky’s austere, even ascetic Cantata of 1952, for soprano, tenor, SSAA chorus and five instruments, has always been a puzzle to many. As the first major work he composed after completing his 18th-century Hogarth opera, The Rake’s Progress, it represents the beginning of a new stylistic direction in his evolution as a central figure in twentieth-century music. Various writers have commented on Stravinsky’s tentative experimentation with proto-serial techniques in the Cantata, applying them to demonstrably tonal melodic lines, but these abstractions are hardly audible, and even hard to discern visually when they are marked in the score. During a decade of living only a mile apart in Hollywood, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who had quarreled in the 1920s about their radically different aesthetics and compositional techniques, avoided meeting each other. Yet following Schoenberg’s death in 1951, Stravinsky, at almost age seventy, sought a new understanding of the twelve-tone founder and his technique, and soon came to embrace it wholeheartedly for the rest of his own active career in a remarkable succession of new works.

The harmonic language of the Cantata is diatonic but complex; in the midst of a palpably C-major background you can hear C major and F major triads mashed together in dissonant counterpoint, or E-minor seventh chords with D-minor triads plunked on top, with one or another melodic line combining and adding one chromatic tone. This kind of harmony was part and parcel of Stravinsky’s language ever since l’Histoire du soldat of 1918 or the Octet for winds of 1922, and spread out over a spacious orchestral canvas in works like the Symphony in Three Movements of 1945, and many masterpieces in between. In the Cantata the sound is rich but upper-register centered, with two flutes, two oboes (the second mostly doubling English horn), and female chorus, with only a solo cello supporting the bottom, and the dense counterpoint is often hard to disentangle. Four choral refrains of the Lyke-Wake Dirge bring forth a quasi-medieval sound that moves from a strong C major to a vague D major. In between the refrains come two canonic arias (Ricercari) and a duet, all three in an elaborate counterpoint of voices and instruments that requires repeated hearings, not to mention a knowledge of 15th-century English, for good comprehension. Some of the melodic figures in the tenor aria closely resemble what Stravinsky later developed more thoroughly in Agon, his Balanchine ballet of 1957; and the spare sound of a C-E flat minor third or minor tenth, widely spaced in different registers in the duet (Westron Wind), is like a trademark in Stravinsky’s sacred music, from his Symphony of Psalms (1930) and Pater noster (1932) to his Latin Mass of 1944-48.

The Winsor performance of the Cantata was excellent in all respects, with vocal soloists Roberta Anderson and Frank Kelley, and fourteen members of the Young Women’s Chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society, Lisa Graham, director; the flutists were Bianca Garcia and Vanessa Holroyd, and Jennifer Slowik provided the English horn; no conductor was needed. There was one prominent emendation of the text, in the tenor aria, “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”: “the Jews” in the original “The Jews on me they made great suit” and “Before Pilate the Jews me brought” was changed to “the priests.” Neither the original text nor its fashionable bowdlerization bothers me any more. Stravinsky, who in the 1930s gave in to fashionable anti-Semitism when it meshed with his performing career, became a philo-Semite in his last years, dedicating his late cantata Abraham and Isaac (1963, Hebrew text from Genesis) to the Israeli nation and comfortably shmoozing with President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, a native Russian.

The concert ended with Bach’s Cantata no. 157, “Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn,” with solo tenor and bass voices, originally a funeral cantata from 1726 but adapted the next year for the Feast of Purification of Mary (Candlemas). Henrici’s text and the lively counterpoint of the opening duet both come from Genesis 32:26, where Jacob wrestles with the angel: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (KJV). The tenor aria with oboe obbligato that follows, “Ich halte meinen Jesum feste,” is said to be one of the most difficult vocal soli in the entire cantata repertory, but Frank Kelley sang it with easy expression. Sumner Thompson, baritone, then sang an aria with arioso expanding on the same text, with obbligati of solo violin (Gabriela Diaz) and flute (Bianca Garcia). The cantata ends with a chorale, “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht” (I will not let go of my Jesus) which I had known from a set of organ variations on the same melody by Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach’s cousin. Michael Beattie and Rafael Popper-Keizer provided a firm continuo, with the addition of Susan Hagen’s double bass. If a full choral sound was lacking in the absence of tenor and bass sections, that didn’t matter much, because the Young Women’s Chorus soared at every moment where needed.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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