in: Reviews

January 19, 2011

Attend the Service for Emmanuel’s Bach Cantata

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Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Newbury Street became famous among music lovers during the 1970s for the performances of Bach cantatas led by the late Craig Smith during its Sunday services. The tradition continues under Ryan Turner, Smith’s successor as church Music Director and Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music, the church’s resident ensemble (The schedule of cantata performances is here.)

In today’s early-music world, liturgical reconstructions — concerts and CDs that replicate historical services, such as the coronation of a Venetian doge — have become common. But what takes place at Emmanuel Church is the real thing: a church service that incorporates the text and music of a work by Bach originally composed for just such a purpose. Emmanuel’s present-day Episcopal service is remote in many ways from the orthodox Lutheran liturgies of early eighteenth-century Weimar and Leipzig in Germany; Bach’s pastors would not have attempted to make non-Christians welcome in their congregations, and a visitor to Leipzig could hardly even have found a place to sit in a church where pews were family possessions (and in which genders were segregated). Yet on two recent visits the rector, the Rev. Pamela L. Werntz, went out of her way to make visitors comfortable, on days whose liturgical subject (baptism) might especially have divided those who are from those who are not church members.

I mention this because no one seeking good performances of sacred works such as these should be deterred by the need to attend the service as well. One could try to time one’s arrival to coincide with the moment when the instrumentalists file into the church to join the chorus in the cantata, after the sermon and communion. But to do so would mean missing not only some other very fine service music, but also parts of the service itself that might prove interesting, thought-provoking, or inspirational, even to the non-religious. On the first day I attended, Dr. Werntz’s sermon touched on early church history, textual criticism, and Jewish theology, among other things. The following week I learned about the archeology of the Jordan River basin and the possibility of interpreting Jesus’s traditional designation as “Lamb of God” from outside the tradition of “patriarchal retributionary justice.”

Bach’s sacred music cantatas were, course, written to promulgate religious lessons specific to the days for which they were written. Cantata 155 was composed for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in 1716, when that day fell on January 19. We don’t know exactly when Bach wrote Cantata 9, but it was intended for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, perhaps July 20, 1732. The days on which I heard these two works, January 9 and 16, 2011, were actually the First and Second Sundays after Epiphany, respectively. But no matter; the texts of both cantatas bear some relation to the days on which they were performed, and these were not, after all, liturgical reconstructions but actual liturgies. (Bach, too, occasionally reassigned works from one day of the church year to another.)

I did not attend many of the services with Bach cantatas that Craig Smith directed. Therefore I am not prepared to comment on how the present performances compared with those of the past. Ryan Turner directed the music on January 9. Principal Guest Conductor John Harbison, who served as Acting Director of Emmanuel Music until Turner’s installation last fall, led the ensemble on January 16. Harbison, of course, is also a composer whose symphonies are being heard at Symphony this year.

Although some may think of “Bach cantatas” as a homogeneous repertory, the roughly two hundred surviving works are of varying length, style, form, and perhaps quality. Cantata 155 is a relatively early work (the numbers are non-chronological), composed for the chapel of the dukes of Weimar on a text by the court poet Salomo Franck. It comprises two recitative-aria pairs and a concluding chorale or hymn setting. Cantata 9 is a so-called chorale cantata, adding to the structure of Cantata 155 a large opening choral movement at the beginning and a third recitative just before the final chorale. The poet, like the date, of Cantata 9 is unknown. But it is clearly a much later work, written for the city churches of Leipzig, where Bach served from 1723 to his death in 1750. Despite these differences, it has become clear in recent decades that both works were intended for performance by an ensemble that probably included just four male singers, who participated in both solo and “choral” movements. The singers were accompanied by an orchestra of probably four violinists and a single player on each of the remaining parts, including one or two woodwind soloists. Emmanuel Music uses a mixed chorus of about sixteen and an orchestra of about a dozen for these works, that is, a few more string players than Bach did, all playing “modern” instruments.

So how do they sound? Many of the musicians are well known to concertgoers from their frequent appearances with other Boston-area ensembles. The vocal soloists performed with flawless taste and, for the most part, exceptional precision. The choir, although having little to do in Cantata 155, achieved the same high standard in the opening chorus of Cantata 9. The orchestral playing on the whole was similarly clean and tasteful, and I particularly appreciated the solid foundation laid by cellist Michael Curry, who as part of the continuo group was unfailingly sensitive to soloists and chorus alike.

Yet the overall effect of both performances was, for this listener, rather neutral. Craig Smith drew attention to Franck’s “eccentric and colorful” text for Cantata 155, in a note that was unsigned, and unfortunately truncated, in the service booklet but is intact online here. Nevertheless, the “moving and highly dramatic arioso” — Smith’s apt description of the opening movement — seemed colorless, despite the conscientious work of soprano Susan Consoli. And she seemed a bit rushed by the quick tempo taken in the difficult second aria. There, too, the strings sounded excessively polite in their performance of the so-called “dotted” rhythms that Bach uses to paint the image of a soul “thrown” into the arms of its savior. The first “aria” — actually a duet — was similarly bland, despite the elegant singing of alto Deborah Rentz-Moore and tenor Zachary Wilder. Neither made much of the expressive dissonances that Bach repeatedly places on the accented verbs of Franck’s text, “you must believe, you must hope.” Here, also, I must differ with some against-the-beat slurring by the solo bassoonist, Thomas Stephenson, that to these ears introduced a small element of flippancy to an otherwise cleanly articulated solo line.

Cantata 9 was composed up to a decade later than most of Bach’s chorale cantatas; indeed, it was one of the last dozen or so of his surviving sacred works (others are either lost or were based on earlier compositions). In the chorale cantatas, the entire text is built around the various stanzas of a single Lutheran hymn or chorale. In addition to ending with a simple setting of a chorale melody, as do most of Bach’s church cantatas, each chorale cantata also opens with a long and more elaborate setting of the same melody. Bach’s congregations knew these chorales by heart—words as well as tunes. Thus they could readily appreciate how the traditional poetry and music were incorporated into a new composition that amplifies and interprets the original. Not so today, even in as musical a congregation as Emmanuel’s.

I assume it is for this reason that Harbison prefaced the cantata proper by inviting the congregation to stand and sing the last stanza of the chorale — that is, the last movement of the cantata, accompanied by choir and orchestra. Congregational participation in this sense was hardly sanctioned either by Bach’s score or by liturgical tradition in Bach’s Leipzig. But in principle it makes sense, though I’m not sure how effective it was in practice. Perhaps a word of explanation would have helped some listeners understand the reason for it.

The performance itself had many of the same strengths as the previous week’s. The choir was delightful in the opening movement, although it was hard to make out the inner parts clearly, perhaps because of the church’s acoustic. The woodwind solos in this movement and in the penultimate duet were performed very cleanly by flutist Vanessa Holroyd and oboist Peggy Pearson. Yet their “modern” approach to articulation tended to even out the many small irregularities in Bach’s variegated instrumental lines. Soprano Roberta Anderson and alto Pamela Dellal sang the duet very finely. But I can’t share Harbison’s enthusiasm for this movement, which I find an almost workaday setting of a doctrinaire text (“Only faith can justify”).

Harbison, in his notes, describes the work’s three recitatives as “Preacher’s” recitations, and indeed Bach assigns all three, unusually, to the same bass voice, typically the voice of authority in his cantatas. Bass David Kravitz sang them with the commanding tone that they require, but unfortunately the intonation became somewhat indefinite at a few crucial moments. I was also disappointed by the tenor aria, which Harbison took at an almost jig-like clip, despite the involuted melodic lines and complex harmony. The words of the aria are certainly dramatic, but I wonder whether the references to sinking down and falling over a precipice represent “contorted and crazed” despair, as opposed to a quieter or more reflective variety of dejection. Tenor Charles Blandy seemed to have a hard time negotiating some passages. And I didn’t think that Heather Braun’s violin playing, accurate though it was, sounded quite like the “avenging, distended tarantella” that Harbison described in his notes. He sees the aria as reflecting Luther himself, “despairingly disturbed” by his understanding of divine justice. Perhaps this vision might be more effectively realized in a less “modern,” more “baroque” performance, one taking a more rhetorical approach to details such as Bach’s careful articulation of the string parts (which, again, I found homogenized in this performance).

Cantata 9 was sung in English, using Harbison’s own musically sensitive translation. I was unable to attend a post-service “talk-back” in which Harbison promised to discuss the text and translation. Thus I cannot say whether anyone else was prepared to quibble with the small licenses taken with the original German — particularly in the tenor aria, whose poem was made more vivid by turning “sunk” to “drowning,” and “precipice” to “hell-pit.” Still, I don’t think anyone could reasonably object to using so fine a translation in performance. More problematically, the words were not always sufficiently distinct for the choice of language to make much audible difference — at least toward the back of the church, where I was seated on this occasion. Of course, a foreign-language text could have an alienating effect that one might want to avoid, especially in a church performance. Reflecting that, Stravinsky sanctioned translations into the local language for many of his vocal compositions, excepting Oedipus Rex (just performed at Symphony), where he actually intended the distancing effect that the Latin translation creates.

It is fitting to add a word about the other music heard in these services. The January 16 service opened with the first movement of Bach’s G-minor sonata for unaccompanied violin, played by Boston University student Sarah Atwood. This was an exceptionally well-controlled performance, very precisely realizing Bach’s carefully notated rhythms. Yet for that reason it lacked the improvisatory fire that this sort of music was perhaps meant to convey. By coincidence, on the way home after the service I happened to hear another violinist performing the same piece in the Park Street subway station, considerably more slowly. Both, perhaps, were aiming at the sort of solemn, reverential tone that might make this difficult piece seem appropriate for church.

Yet that is the opposite of the fervor expressed in the Baroque organ preludes that more often introduce services today. To be sure, most such pieces were probably composed for recitals, not services, as was the jig-like C-major fugue by Buxtehude that ended the January 16 service. This was played with lively and sure fingers (no feet in this one) by organist Tim Steele. He was substituting that day for Nancy Granert, whom, however, I heard the previous week in a very clear performance of Buxtehude’s fantasia on the chorale melody “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” The gallery organ, an electronic instrument incidentally, was hardly designed for such seventeenth-century music, but both players came up with crisp registrations that were more than adequate.

Within the service itself, Cantata 155 was preceded by the four-part motet “Tribus miraculis” by the late-sixteenth-century Italian composer Luca Marenzio. This was an interesting selection by a composer better known for his vivid madrigals. It is not a particularly striking work, but as in the cantata the performance might have gone a little further toward fulfilling the work’s expressive potential; I found the quiet final Alleluia unnecessarily understated. A week later Harbison conducted the five-part motet “O Herr Jesu Christe” by the German composer Johann Herrmann Schein. Although published in 1623, it imitates the popular style of Marenzio’s five-part Italian madrigals (as Schein in effect admitted). Harbison’s brief program note noted the “volleying between the two sopranos”—quick exchanges of “o, o” and “ach, ach” that were sung with great delicacy and lightness. I wonder, though, whether this “hocketing,” as he also called it, was not meant to evoke the longing which similar writing expresses in Marenzio’s madrigals.

It is remarkable that these performances should take place regularly and should be, on the whole, so well prepared. The care in their realization extends to online publication of the texts and commentaries, for which the directors and others who contribute to them are owed many thanks. This is music presented not only for its own sake but for what it might mean or accomplish at some higher level. Anyone who cares about music in Boston ought at least occasionally to attend and support these services, and perhaps not only for the music.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

2 Comments

  1. It is nice to see Emmanuel musicians’ contribution to the Episcopal mass mentioned. This is ‘musicians’ music’, with no applause, and quite different from in the concert hall. The cantata is an integral part of the service, not an add-on and often themes or ideas are echoed in other music of the service. One should note that the musicians do a particularly astonishing performance since unlike in concert settings, they have only one rehearsal, sometimes seeing the scores the first time. Additionally, I have never found the ‘motet’ which the choir usually sings a cappella part of the ‘service music’ any more than the cantata. Though shorter, this music is usually exquisite and a gem and missed by someone who only comes in time for the cantata. Many of us would not know Schütz but for Craig’s use of so many of his motets. Exquisite.

    Comment by Pat Jackson — January 21, 2011 at 12:45 am

  2. I would like to thank Mr. Schulenberg for this thoughtful review. He deals with an aspect of what goes on on Sundays at Emmanuel which is often awkward to speak of these days, the larger context. I am one among many whose intent at first was only to hear the Cantata, but strangely, the lack of dogmatism makes space for one’s spirit there. Whether by suspending disbelief, or by allowing unorthodox belief, participating on a regular basis with this music in this context deepens ones engagement with the spiritual intentions of the music. It is a very powerful thing, and the Cantata, heard as the climax of this larger effort speaks in a way that it can’t in isolation. i think this was the brilliance of Craig Smith’s idea. We speak of “The Cantata” but the motets, earlier in the service are always exquisite, and the folks who do come in for the Cantata miss them!

    Comment by Mike Scanlon — January 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm

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