IN: Reviews

Carrying Bach Back to Leipzig

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Bach’s inspiration provides continuing proof that a supreme being exists, and through the offices of Emmanuel Music, since Craig Smith founded it in 1970, Bach continues to resonate for everyone who hears his work.

On Wednesday evening at Emmanuel Church of Boston, in anticipation of its history-making appearance at the Leipzig BachFest, Emmanuel Music performed four of the “chorale cantatas” of Bach, together with four new pieces (by Marti Epstein, John Harbison, Elena Ruehr, and Errolyn Wallen) commissioned as preludes. The entire evening was rich with beauty, pathos, artistry, and exquisite music-making.

As Artistic Director Ryan Turner put it in his interview with WGBH’s Jared Bowen, Emmanuel Music performs Bach on contemporary instruments because Bach belongs to everyone. And on this note, a shout out to Pamela Dellal for her translations, making Bach’s language profoundly human and accessible to everyone. Turner has continued and grown Smith’s large legacy, especially the practice of performing the complete Bach Cantata Series with orchestra in a church setting, furthered by commissions to living composers. For the commissions keyed to the Leipzig BachFest, Emmanuel Music charged the composers to write a three-minute a cappella prelude to an assigned cantata. It is a delightful marriage, and was so enjoyable to hear how each composer took inspiration from her/his cantata and formed another whole work from it.

Marti Epstein’s Prayer began with (What should I ask of the world?) from BWV 94 Was frag ich nacht der Welt, answered by the Hebrew words, “Behold how good and how pleasing for people to sit together in unity.” A fragment of the bass line from BWV 94 in a Lydian scale on E, rose and fell in imitative counterpoint. The line moved from high to low voices and swelled in dynamic. The chorus sang with acute precision and warmth: the rolling effect seemed to dissolve into what sounded like several amiable dinner table conversations then decrescendoed to two voices on a D-flat – E-flat major second that led inexorably into the D major cantata.

The complete BWV 94 included Vanessa Holroyd’s spirited and thrilling flute, bass Will Prapestis’s clarity and vibrant expressiveness, Omar Najmi’s clarion tenor, alto Katherine Maysek and Holroyd, both exuding pathos, soprano Carley de Franco and Peggy Pearson’s oboe d’amore both warm and comforting. The final chorale, sung pp and then ff, answered the question with satisfying assurance.

John Harbison’s Fadensonnen, on poetry by Paul Celan, 1961 Berlin, offered a spare, spacious, mostly homorhythmic exchange from voice to voice, (reminiscent to this listener of composer Erna Woll) ending on an E major chord. Harbison writes that “it deliberately does not lead ‘directly there’” to the full-throated opening chorus in D minor of BWV 101. But the segue is there to this ear.

BWV 101– Nimm von uns, Herr, der Treuer Gott (Take Away from Us Lord, faithful God), perhaps the opposite of Harbison’s spare writing,  added trombones and cornets to the orchestral writing, as well as making greater use of reeds, with an English horn; this massive work is a cry for help from a shattered humanity. To double down on that Bach makes use of sighing notes and surprising unresolved dissonances in the first chorus.

Players and soloists delivered their usual fine musicianship throughout: Sopranos Corinne Byrne and Sonja Tengblad, alto Carrie Cheron, tenors Matthew Anderson and Charles Blandy, and bass Andrew Padgett all brought their excellent diction and heart to the work. Standing out was Heidi Braun-Hill, concert mistress, who brought out the plain tune within Bach’s ornamental string writing in her duet with tenor Blandy. Here, Rafael Popper-Keiser and Michael Beattie deserve recognition for their always expert and compassionate basso continuo. The double reed quartet of Peggy Pearson, Catherine Weinfeld-Zell, and Jennifer Slowik (on English horn) and bassoonist Adrian Morejon, with bass Andrew Padgett in the instrumental chorale “Why are you so angry?” was a brilliant contrast between slogging through “earth and dung” and harried confusion. Following this was a heartbreaking double duet with Sonja Tengblad’s rich soprano and Carrie Cheron’s warm alto, while Jennifer Slowik on English horn duetted with flautist Vanessa Holroyd. The final chorale for this gigantic work was bare bones, making an incredibly surprising and perfect contrast.

Elena Ruehr’s Your Healing Word uses text from the BWV 113 Chorale, as translated by Francis Browne and adapted by the composer. Beginning with a single note that immediately blossoms out like a fast forward bloom, Ruehr’s motet moved like fingers on a keyboard continually creeping towards neighboring notes and finding rich and often surprising resolutions. The final segment is a lively dance ending on an F-sharp major chord that led perfectly into the cantata’s first chord.

BWV 113 – Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, O highest good) begins with the chorale tune well embellished by the instruments. A second chorale immediately follows as sung by the high voices accompanied by violins and bass instruments playing obligato. Pearson and Weinfeld-Zell’s fine oboe duet accompanied bass David McFerrin’s capable rendering of a breathless aria.  The Chorale tune returned on “your healing Word” with the low voices interrupting a bass recitative (an often-used technique in these chorale cantatas). The miraculous Jonas Budris, (the most heart-rending St Matthew evangelist ever, to this listener) accompanied by the equally magnificent Holroyd, gave a healing, reassuring rendition of the tenor aria and recitative. Alto Clare McNamara and soprano Susan Consoli imbued their mercilessly long melismas with hope and expressiveness. The final chorale emphasized that hope in fine unornamented simplicity.

Errolyn Wallen’s Let the Music be Heard uses mostly homorhythmic and spacious jazz chords and a little imitation with gratifying simplicity on her brief and pointed text from the cantata. With some delightful head turning destinations it grew to a climax then softened into the final chord held like a dominant to C major of BWV 137.

BWV 137 – Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honor) came across with unfettered joy. Bach adds three trumpets to the orchestra, and separates each verse of this song of praise into four sections. Heidi Braun-Hill worked her magic again accompanying Krista Rivers’s fine-lined and creamy alto rendition of verse two. In verse three, bass Dana Whiteside and soprano Kristen Watson exquisitely duetted with Pearson’s and Slowik’s oboes in counterpoint. Bach’s invention is endless: Jonas Budris’s sang the tenor solo obligato with basso continuo while the trumpet took the simple chorale tune. Terry Everson’s trumpet projected with assurance and remarkable clarity, leading to the final verse sung tutti. 

What a great finale to an evening of invention old and new. I suspect Craig Smith’s buttons are popping up there, not just because of this performance, and Turner’s re-inventive commissions, but because his 1970 invention is going to Leipzig ― a first for an American Bach ensemble. Kudos to Emmanuel Music on so many levels!

The author, recently retired as Cappella Clausura’s director, is an alumna scholar at Brandeis’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

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