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Ma-a-a-a-a-gnificent

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Bach is the greatest,even in China

The lovers of long musical line and blended ornament who filled the pews and balcony of First Church Cambridge on Saturday received, from Spectrum Singers’ mature chorus of 45 and a modern-instrument contingent of 25, a generous dollop of the Leipzig master’s most engaging sounds. One again, leader John Ehrlich fielded a blessedly HIP-less but thankfully sonorous contingent—this time including the three trumpets required for the Magnificat in D Major. One had presumed that Ehrlich included the less familiar cantatas of the first half to take advantage of such luxury casting, but in fact, he was strongly advocating for the first half’s three works based on Revelations, which he believes, do not deserve their relative neglect. In fact, the Magnificat served as the appetizing filler in the lime-, strawberry-, and peach-sorbet-coated sanctuary.

Without preliminaries, the basses started off the proceedings as “A struggle arose” (Er erhub sich ein Streit) in the chorus from BWV 19. Bach made of this saga of Michael slaying the dragon a rather too lively an exercise in fugal garnish, and from our balcony seats the joyful noise of words and passagework combined rather too well. Perhaps the hashed arrangement of the singers over-blended the sound. In this florid, quick repertoire, less of that quality would have resulted in more ear-cleansing pleasure. Also, in this number and elsewhere, the choral writing makes too little of the struggle in the story even if on paper, the forests of 16th-notes appear to evoke it. Yet, once the trumpets and timps entered, we could take piquant relish in Bach’s upbeat, and oft-galant orchestration.

The opening chorale of Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (Lord God, we all praise you) S.130 disclosed more orchestral and choral pleasantries, beginning with a short overture evoking one of the master’s orchestral suites. Paul Perfetti, with his piccolos instruments in A and F, took the inerrant high road in the trumpets’ ménage à trois. Gary Di Perna had a blast with the timps. The women singers, all smiles, intoned the chorale theme as descant whilst encircled by the passage-working men and the happy harmonies in the band.

The continuo players, in particular Heinrich Christensen on portative organ, cellist Sam Ou, and contrabassist Robert Aistrup, gave supple and engaging support all night, beginning in Pamela Dellal’s authoritative alto recitative. In the bass aria depicting a dragon “burning with envy,” Sumner Thompson supplied plenty of attractive focused tone and more than held his own in the battle with trumpets and timps. Did they impersonate Michael’s dragon?

Tenor William Hite sounded a bit strained in the busy aria, not quite exalting the throng of cherubim; flutist Venessa Holroyd, though, made much of her obbligato flights. The concluding chorale gave the divine Word much well-shaped and warm elegance.

Cantata 50 has survived as a single eight-voice chorus without a clear position in the lectionary. It begins fugally and builds to a resounding and complex praise-hymn of a tutti. What with all the entries and the traffic management, it’s hard to shape, but Ehrlich brought it off, to the rousing finish.

Bach’s drivetime top-40 Magnificat must have drawn the full house. Ehrlich summoned a fast, clean, bouncy take, satisfying in a Craig Smith-informed modern style. In Quia respexit, soprano Sarah Yonovich sounded relaxed and engaged while listening with us to plangent oboist Ben Fox’s long, lustrous lines. The chorus entered attacca rather unsteadily in Omnis generationes. Perhaps if the organ had been louder* they could have exuded more confidence. Sumner Thomson brought a mighty tone to Quia fecit—beautifully produced without a hint of woof. The Et misercordia, right up there with Erbarme dich, allows for great drama, but on this night Hite and Dellal could have milked it more. The chorus’s shouting for joy in the superbos of fecit potentiam proved a great Wachet auf call. Hite must have been saving something for the Deposit potentes: he brought it forth heroically. In the alto aria Esurientes implevit bonus, Della floated exquisitely over the continuo and gorgeous paired flutes of Vanessa Holroyd and Jessica Lizak. Soprano Kaitlyn Hess stepped out of the chorus to great effect in the trio Suscepti Israel with Yanovitch and Dellal, wherein a melting oboe (Ben Fox) dispensed mercies. If the ambitious chorus understandably showed some fatigue in the final two choruses, taking a bit too much care, a generous helping of satisfying and un-doctrinaire Bach lingered in the ear.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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*Handel, the complete man of theater, did more dramatic word-painting than Bach. Think of the insects in the plague and “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?” from Semele. Some of Bach’s word-painting, though, occurs in what he omitted: Ehrlich cites how Satan interrupted the singers when dividing the “patient little flock.”

**The small and lovely cabinet organ, pleasant and helpful in the quieter passages, did not supply the requisite oomph when singers and orchestra engaged in full cry. We particularly missed the strong organ familiar to us in the Richter recording. Christoph Wolff agrees that the continuo organ part is often prominent, notably in the ‘Quia fecit’ bass solo movement with only basso continuo accompaniment. “Bach’s organs in Leipzig were large church instruments, of course, not the wimpy chest organs we often hear today in period-instrument performances, typically complemented by harpsichord and/or lute for rhythmic drive.” When did this diminishment begin in the HIP movement? Would Bach, the father of 20, approve of small organs? Ehrlich did inform us later, that for the Magnificat, he would have used the large tracker in the left transept had it been working properly.

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