Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born into a long lineage of musicians. For 200 years, the Bach family “produced musicians of every kind in numbers beyond parallel: from fiddlers and town musicians to organists, Kantors, court musicians and Kapellmeisters,” says the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians.
Two illustrious contemporary relatives of the ‘Great J.S.’ were featured in Philharmonia Baroque’s latest concerts. Both were J.S.’s distant cousins: Johann Christoph (1642-1703) and Johann Ludwig (1677-1731).
From these Bach cousins, Music Director Nicholas McGegan selected two funeral-related pieces: the Cantata Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig (Lord, turn unto me and have mercy) by Johann Christoph and the Trauermusik (literally, "music of sadness") that Johann Ludwig composed upon the death, in 1724, of his employer, Duke Ernst Ludwig I of Saxe-Meiningen.
The concert opened with the instrumental sinfonia from a different funeral piece, “Schwanengesang” (Swan Song), by Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), another contemporary composer of distinction.
Except for the solemn walking pace of the Telemann sinfonia, there was very little that would suggest that these pieces had anything to do with death and mourning. This is optimistic and celebratory music, honoring the dearly departed.
As Philharmonia Chorale Director Bruce Lamott writes in the program notes, funeral rites for 18th-century German dignitaries were often lavish and theatrical, and the music written for such occasions could be quite elaborate, with Johann Ludwig’s Trauermusik requiring four soloists, two choirs with their own orchestra of strings and continuo; and flutes, recorders, oboes, bassoon, trumpets, and timpani added to the second orchestra.
Lamott’s own Chorale was, as so often, the magnificent, musical backbone of this concert. Such magnificence starts with an extraordinary group of singers – choral singers; but Lamott and his choir manage to generate a special kind of musical magic.
[The Philharmonia Baroque] Chorale was, as so often, the magnificent, musical backbone of this concert.Less replete with musical magic was the quartet of soloists that figured in both Bach works. The energetic tenor Brian Thorsett sang with great emphasis and purpose and showed his refinement and range in the aria “Lob und Dank zum Opfer Geben” (To offer up praise and thanks) in Part III of the Trauermusik.
This followed countertenor Clifton Massey’s pondering recitativo “Was ist der Mensch, Herr” (What is man, O Lord) and the subsequent aria “Dies Macht dein Sohn” in which his warm alto timbre was perfectly complemented by the melodic sighs of a trio of traversos from the orchestra.
Baritone Jeffrey Fields was far less convincing. Sometimes barely audible, he either was out of his league – at least not in the same league as the other soloists – or he simply didn’t have his best day. In this company, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
In Christoph Bach’s cantata, Chorale member Tonia d’Amelio replaced starring soprano Sherezade Panthaki, who, according to McGegan’s announcement, saved herself for the “Trauermusik”. d’Amelio, however, was a far better fit for this particular piece than I could imagine Panthaki to be: The music requires soprano, alto, and tenor to blend into one voice in dialogue with the voice of God, represented by the bass (or baritone, in this case).
Panthaki is a perfectly capable soprano, but her vocal exuberance was more suited to climb the scales and tackle the coloratura of an aria such as “Da, da will ich dir bezahlen” (There will I pay back) in the Trauermusik – which she did admirably.
To mention the members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra last is almost doing them a disservice, but to stick with my earlier metaphor: If the Chorale was the musical backbone of the concert, the Orchestra was its heart and lungs. Together they made the soul of the music come alive.