in: Reviews

June 25, 2014

Bach Choral Works for Organists’ Guild

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I have never seen the church of St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge as full as it was Tuesday night for the first of two performances of a short all-Bach program by the Handel and Haydn Society’s Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus. This was one of a number of concerts sponsored this week by the American Guild of Organists, a large organization which is holding its annual meeting in Boston. The 7:30 performance that I heard was repeated at 9. The concert was directed by John Finney, with eight familiar local voices heard as soloists.

All-Bach, but not all the same Bach: Johann Sebastian’s motet Komm, Jesu, komm and his G-major Mass (BWV 236) were preceded by a short choral work “Spiega, Ammonia fortunata” by his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The little-known latter work was part of the observance of C. P. E.’s three hundredth birthday on March 8 earlier this year.

The evening’s major and concluding work was the Mass—a so-called Lutheran mass or missa brevis comprising Kyrie and Gloria, arranged by Bach late in his career from previously composed movements in his church cantatas. Thus the opening “Kyrie” movement is a choral fugue from Cantata 179, whose second aria was also the source of the “Quoniam.” These two movements are understated, though far from unremarkable. The “Kyrie,” in particular, contains some tortuous melodic and harmonic passages; a chromatic line originally used to set the German phrase falsche Herzen (“false hearts”) is repurposed for the Latin, or rather Greek, prayer eleison (“have mercy”). On the other hand, Bach derived the opening and closing movements of the Gloria from two of the more lively opening choruses in his cantatas, one of them another fugue (from Cantata 17). Hence this is a particularly good work for showing off a virtuoso chorus, even if that was not its original intention.

The performers did their usual excellent work, and I was impressed by Finney’s expressive phrasing of the “Kyrie.” Soprano Teresa Wakim and alto Douglas Dodson were a crystal-clear duo in the “Domine Deus,” and Bradford Gleim accurately executed the bass coloratura in the “Gratias agimus.” If the latter seemed occasionally more dutiful than flowing, it could be because of the sometimes ungrateful nature of Bach’s adaptation of the Latin text to what was originally a German aria. The expressive high point of the evening was surely the “Quoniam,” in which Jonas Budris was joined by oboist Stephen Hammer in what is effectively a duet. Both parts, full of Bach’s ornately embellished melodic lines, were executed beautifully despite a few intonation glitches from the otherwise solid basso continuo group (I’m not sure that two cellos and a double bass were all needed in this particular number, which otherwise lacks strings).

Unfortunately, the combination of a very resonant hall with anachronistically large performing forces made for less than optimal results in the quicker choral movements. Although the ensemble of seventeen expert singers is small by modern standards, Bach probably intended this music, like most of his choral works, for performance with a single voice on a part. Thus the opening soprano-alto duet in the “Gloria” was not for two modern choral sections but two soloists, singing lines played by two horns in the movement’s original version in Cantata 79. Performing this as Bach envisioned it might have preserved that soloistic character. More seriously, although the soprano and bass lines were always clearly audible, the equally expressive inner parts for alto, tenor, and sometimes the viola and other instruments were often obscured by the haze of echoing sound. This was a particular problem given the quite rapid tempo taken in what, in another space, might have been a magnificent closing “Amen” fugue.

The same problem emerged occasionally in the motet, an eight-part work for double chorus. This was performed with a single cello doubling each of the bass parts but otherwise no instruments, apart from the small continuo organ (played unobtrusively by Michael Beattie). The lighter scoring alleviated some of the potential acoustic problems. But I still found it hard to make out much of the intricate part-writing, and the German text was largely lost, at least where I was sitting, despite Finney’s sensitive direction.

The evening’s novelty was the work by C. P. E. Bach, which dates from 1770. It was recently published for the first time, as part of the new edition of the composer’s complete works emanating from the offices of the Packard Humanities Institute in Cambridge. Its Italian text, “Spiega, Ammonia fortunata,” is a celebration not of chemistry but of the city of Hamburg (“Hammonia” in Latin); you can read more about it in the online supplement to my forthcoming book on the composer here.

This luxuriantly scored work, with flutes, horns, trumpets, and timpani joining the oboes, bassoon, and strings heard in the other pieces, made for a grand opening to the concert. Despite the abundant instrumental forces, the work is actually scored quite simply. This allowed it to make a wonderful impression even if the brilliantly played busy lines of the violins (led capably on this occasion by Susanna Ogata) lost some of their articulation in St. Paul’s space. Misleadingly described as a cantata, the work is actually a single large choral aria in A-B-A form, the middle section given over to fine soloists drawn from the choir (Margot Rood, Catherine Hedberg, Stefan Reed, and Donald Wilkinson).

The work, which seems to have here received its modern premiere, was written shortly after its composer had received his appointment as director of church music at Hamburg. It contains little of his signature harmonic or rhythmic expressivity, instead relying on formulas from vocal music by his once-popular older contemporaries Graun and Hasse. These formulas nevertheless make a splendid effect when executed as well as H & H did. It would not be contrary to C. P. E. Bach’s own spirit and practice to substitute the name “Bostonia” for “Ammonia” the next time they perform it on the other side of the Charles.

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

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