in: Reviews

September 19, 2011

Fascinating Mix-and Matched Players for Telemann

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On September 17, at the Second Church in West Newton, Exsultemus and Newton Baroque continued their presentation of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Harmonischer Gottesdienst, a cycle of 72 small, sacred cantatas. Though written for church services, the intimate scoring and straight-forward structures clearly reflect the Hausmusik tradition that was so popular among the German-speaking middle and upper classes in the late Baroque period. It was in this spirit, that of skilled and enthusiastic individuals coming together to make music, that the two ensembles performed five cantatas from the collection, along with two of Telemann’s instrumental works. The most fascinating feature of the program was that, although each cantata is scored for essentially a trio—vocalist, obligato instrumentalist, continuo—there were a total of 12 performers, mixed and matched, bringing their own personality to whichever work they were playing.

The program opened with a violin sonata featuring Susanna Ogata as soloist. Ogata, who could easily be the stylistic love-child of Andrew Manze and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, played the piece with sensitivity and a fire that belied the relatively timid sound of her instrument. Her musicality was echoed by harpsichordist and Newton Baroque director Andrus Madsen and cellist Sarah Freiberg, who nearly shredded her instrument with excitement during the work’s riveting final Allegro. Throughout the program, Madsen (or, in one work, guest artist David Schulenberg) worked with either Freiberg or, for the two cantatas of milder nature, the slightly mellower gamba player Angus Lansing. Their continuo provided bounce and bite where needed, without degenerating into the percussive clangor that many other period instrument ensembles seem to favor. Moreover, it not only supplied a solid foundation, but was also an equally expressive musical partner to the soloists.

Soprano Shannon Canavin’s full-bodied yet floaty voice brought gentle expression to Deines neuen Bundes Gnade.  Her tendency to gloss over some of the more forceful German consonants, combined with the fact that her line was often doubled at the unison by flautist Mary Oleskiewicz, created an almost glowing sonority that, while not always appropriate for the text, was attractive nonetheless. In contrast, mezzo-soprano Mary Gerbi let the words guide her tone colors in Schau nach Sodom nicht zurücke. Her earthy tone and crisp diction, along with Ogata’s dynamic violin, brought a spark and an energetic directness to the piece. In Die stärkende Wirkung des Geistes, Shiba Nemat-Nasser did an impressive job of containing her powerful mezzo-soprano voice while still singing with richness and clarity. This particular cantata features one of Telemann’s more inspired expressive devices: at certain key points in the text, the continuo drops out, resulting in a powerfully sparse texture of vocalist and instrumentalist alone. Unfortunately, this proved to be a bit troublesome for Nemat-Nasser and violinist Scott Metcalfe, whose slightly choppy phrasing compounded the slight skittishness with which the performers negotiated these sections.

The only vocalist who sang more than one work was tenor Jason McStoots. Though he had more difficulty than the others with the German pronunciation, it did not stop him from delivering engaging and sensitively nuanced performances. In Trifft menschlich und voll Fehler, he teamed up with recorder player Sarah Cantor, who danced the music as much as played it with such joy and sprightly ease that one wished she had been given more to do than just the one piece. Though McStoots’s ringing, head-voicey tone overpowered Cantor in the first aria of this cantata, he softened his sound so tenderly for the second aria (Gleich dem Balsam sind die Lehren) that, along with Cantor’s achingly delicate playing, the performance made for the warmest, loveliest moment of the entire evening. And if Metcalfe’s violin playing was problematic in the previous cantata, his bright tone and bold musicality were perfect for the final cantata on the program, Packe dich, gelähmter Drache. He, along with McStoots’s narrative prowess and the frenetic energy of Madsen and Freiberg’s hellfire continuo, ended the evening with as mighty a dragonish roar as such a small group of fine musicians can.

Four programs remain in the Telemann Harmonischer Gottesdienst, series for this year. “Control F” search “Gottesdienst” in BMInt’s “Upcoming Events” for details.

 Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan

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