in: Reviews

April 2, 2014

C.P.E.B. is 300

by

Harvard’s celebration of Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach’s birthday includes exhibitions in Houghton Library and the Loeb Music Library, symposia, a performance in early May of his Magnificat and, most recent last, one of Die Israeliten in der Wüste last Friday night at Memorial Church.

A symposium held in Paine Hall placed the work in its historical context, with conductor Edward Elwyn Jones giving examples of what to expect. His presentation followed an introduction by Christoph Wolff and talks by Ellen Harris and Reginald L. Sanders, editor of the current edition of the work.

The Israelites in the Wilderness is about extreme people in extreme circumstances, who wander with no water or food until Moses strikes a rock, whence flows water. It was written for a new church associated with a charity hospital beyond the city walls of Hamburg, Lazareths, where it premiered on November 1st 1760. With this presentation, C.P.E. Bach may have been alluding to Handel’s Messiah performances for the Foundling Hospital. The work, in two parts, was designed for performance during the dedication: Part I would have come before the sermon, and part II afterward, illustrating the sacred texts for the day. The work was extremely successful; C.P.E. Bach included it in a concert of his own only one month after the church dedication, and subsequent performances were conducted by others, including Mozart and Beethoven. Capitalizing on its popularity, C.P.E. published it by subscription, following the example of a poet friend. C.P.E. Bach wrote the work with the aim that it could be performed in a secular setting as well, and for publication he removed words from the libretto that tied it to the Lazareths dedication. (Interestingly, a copy of the oratorio in which the part of Second Israelite woman is ornamented in C.P.E.’s own hand was owned by Johanna Elisabeth von Winthem, wife of the poet friend Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and this version was used Friday evening.)

Writing with new affect, C.P.E. Bach aimed for direct emotional impact, using unrelated harmonies and dramatic dynamics. The form looks back to the Baroque, particularly the Passions of his father and works of Handel, as well as presaging those of Mozart and Haydn. Die Israeliten is constructed using homophonic choruses, representing the unified Israelites, with recitatives and da capo arias for four characters: First and Second Israelite Women, both sopranos; Aaron, tenor; and Moses, a bass. There are a Sinfonia in Part I, a French overture preceding the entrance of Moses, akin to Handel’s Sinfonia in Messiah before the Nativity scene, and a chorale toward the end of Part II for the congregation to sing, like those his father incorporated into his Passions although harmonized utterly differently.

This performance, by the Harvard University Choir under Jones with soloists Amanda Forsythe, Jessica Petrus, Jonas Budris, and David McFerrin, the Harvard Baroque Orchestra and Grand Harmonie, was beautiful and most engaging. At the opening, in which the chorus portrays the tired, hungry, and thirsty Israelites wandering in the desert, the choir immediately succeeded in conveying C.P.E Bach’s quick and marked contrasts with direct emotion. This mostly student choir has a full and clear sound, phrasing nicely articulated, and a large sense of drama.

A string ensemble of students and recent graduates directed by Phoebe Carrai and Sarah Darling, the Harvard Baroque Orchestra was likewise more than equal to their task. When the score called for winds, brass and timpani, members of the historic wind ensemble Grand Harmonie joined in. Overall, pacing and balance were exemplary. At the conclusion of Part I, the violin section, ably led by Darling, beautifully portrayed water pouring forth from the rock.

Amanda Forsythe as the First Israelite Woman and Jessica Petrus as the Second Israelite Woman fully conveyed their character, in part I suffering and complaints and in part II celebration and trust in God. In her two arias, Petrus made the ornaments her own. Tenor Jonas Budris as Aaron seemed to be struggling a bit down low, but I heard he was under the weather, and his voice has a beauty to which we were rarely treated. Baritone David McFerrin portrayed with authority, tenderness, and flexibility Moses’s character, from the faltering leader under attack to the fervent interceder for the deliverance of his people and foreteller of the coming of the Messiah.

The orchestra cleverly complemented Amanda Forsythe’s ornaments in what for me was the highlight of part II: her performance of “Vor der Mittags heissen Strahlen,” an aria delighting in the grace and favor of God in bestowing water upon the parched land and people. The aria could well have been a model for Haydn’s “With Verdure Clad” from The Creation, and with her supreme singing Forsythe made spring arrive in Memorial Church. The continuo team of cellist Phoebe Carrai, bassist Benjamin Rechel, harpsichordist Zachary Stadtmueller and organist Christian Lane provided sensitive recitative accompaniment, and mention also must be made of bassoonist Elizabeth Hardy’s superb obbligato solo in Moses’s aria, “Gott, sieh dein Volk im Staube liegen!

In performances during C.P.E Bach’s lifetime and afterward, and so here, Die Israeliten in der Wüste was paired with his Heilig, Wq 217, a 1776 work he published by subscription a few years later, writing “It is to be my swan song of this type [sacred music], and thereby serve the purpose that I may not be forgotten too soon after my death.” Heilig is for two choirs, each with orchestra arrayed at either end of the venue. That poses certain difficulties for budgets. From only one location at Memorial Church, the combined forces, with Amanda Forsythe singing the gallant introductory Ariette, pulled off a splendid performance. The effect perhaps less impressive than intended, it was nonetheless quite memorable, with a complex and beautifully sung concluding fugue.

If it is anything like this concert, the upcoming performance of the Magnificat should well worth attending.

Letitia Stevens is a freelance classical singer, choral conductor and voice teacher.

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