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Shining Early Cantatas

March 27, 2007

When you think of imagery and text painting in Baroque music, you are likely to think first of the era’s early Italian composers and the madrigal tradition. The American Bach Soloists, however, remind us that despite his reputation as a composer of highly technical and complex music, J.S. Bach also turned out incredibly vivid and colorful works.
Saturday’s concert, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, of five cantatas from his early years in Mühlhausen and Weimar, proved that Bach was by this time a master of creating drama. ABS presented a composer still soaking up styles and trends, while developing a strong voice of his own.

Just as Bach’s creation of mood and ambiance is masterful, so too was the performance. Singers and instrumentalists alike turned in tight, brilliant performances. Soloists Ellen Hargis, Judith Malafronte, Aaron Sheehan, and Jesse Blumberg joined Conductor and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas’ ace team of specialists, each bringing sensitivity and nuance to their technical skills.

Thomas chose to restore the ensemble movements to one singer per part, which provoked some concerned whispers from the audience members behind me, but the decision proved to be quite effective over the course of the evening. Only once did I think that a choral movement could have used a bit more power. A better suited and classier ensemble would be next to impossible to find. Singers and instrumentalists maintained their individuality while still working together cohesively.

The program opened with a first performance by ABS. Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (Prepare the way, prepare the path!, BWV 132) begins with a buoyant soprano aria whose vocal line is interspersed with ritornellos and evocative instrumental passages. Hargis brought clean articulation and a sense of jubilation to her lines, which call on the faithful to prepare themselves for the Messiah.

The cantata’s highlight came with the alto recitative and aria, “Ich will, mein Gott ... Christi Glieder, ach bedenket” (I will, my God ... Christ’s members, ah, consider). Malafronte graced the work with quiet but convincing drama, her pleas rich and warm, her phrasing graceful. The reference to baptismal waters in the text was echoed by the beautifully shaped, swirling violin line that opens the aria.

Imagery and text painting could well have been the theme of the evening. The opening sinfonia of Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven, BWV 18) contained vivid evocations of rain, with the low continuo providing the dark clouds and biggest rain plops, while the two recorders gave splattering drops. The whopping four violas gave us the wind and storm. The following litany, using all voices, alone and in combination, was extremely effective in its depiction of the faithful as they are repenting and asking for forgiveness.
Lovely Moments for an Occasion
The other ABS premiere of the evening was Der Herr denket an uns (The Lord thinks of us, BWV 196). While the shortest piece, at least textually, this “occasional” cantata (that is, one composed for specific occasions rather than as part of the church year) contained some of the evening’s loveliest moments. The uplifting text comes from Psalm 115, and was composed for a wedding.

The sinfonia was nicely filled out with the addition of Steven Lehning’s violone grosso. This string movement was delicate and subtle, with Thomas’ precise direction yielding stunning phrasing and dynamic range.

The gem of the piece was Hargis’ aria “Er segnet” (He blesses). Lisa Weiss delivered the opening violin line superbly and the interplay with Hargis’ lines worked marvelously. Hargis effortlessly spun out endless phrase after endless phrase, punctuating them with wonderful shifts in dynamics. In addition, her pure tone and agile ascending lines were matched by legato that should be a model for all singers.

Bach added just one Amen to the biblical text. This one word, though, allowed him to present a double fugue, intricate and quick moving in typical Bach fashion. If we felt lulled into thinking that we were listening to nice, innocuous Italian cantatas, here was a reminder that the master of contrapuntal puzzles was still on the scene.

The American Bach Soloists’ talent at bringing obscure works to light in no way lessens the power of their interpretations of more common repertoire. Indeed, Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen (Weeping, wailing, grief, and fear, BWV 12) sounded fresh and inspired. Stephen Hammer’s oboe produced spun-gold phrasing and wrenching melancholic lines. The well-known choral first movement again uses dramatic word painting, overlapping weeps and cries.

Aaron Sheehan’s “Sei getrau, alle Pein” (Be steadfast, all the pain) was particularly well-sung. His voice is clear and uncomplicated, and his careful reading of the text and convincing inflection brought out the drama. He showed a mastery of the high tessitura and long phrases. Sheehan also stayed in contact with his continuo team, and also with Hammer (who provided the chorale tune Jesu meine Freude), which led to a strong sense of unity.
Moving From Death to Triumph
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the very best time, BWV 106) closed the evening with a series of lovely interactions between gambas (played by Brent Wissick and John Dornenburg), the soloists, and the recorders (Hanneke van Proosdij and, again, Hammer). This interplay was particularly fine in the bass aria “Bestelle dein Haus” (Set ready thine house). The deceptively simple declamatory style can often sound like barks or shouts. Here, though, Blumberg maintained lovely phrasing and diction. The contrasting melismatic lines rose and fell elegantly.

The recorders beautifully complemented Blumberg’s line with carefully intertwined responses. Blumberg also handled the extremely high tessitura of the later arioso with aplomb. The rising lines, again illustrating the text’s reference to paradise, arched gracefully. The closing chorale started with static lines, resembling pedal tones, but as the text moved from death and slumber to triumph, the vocal line gained momentum and became melismatic. Bach once again employed a classic fugal Amen.

With this wonderfully thoughtful and enlightening program, the American Bach Soloists have once again proven their incomparability in performing the works of J.S. Bach.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Miller holds degrees in singing from London's Royal Academy of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.