Tuesday, May 24, 2011

It's hard to imagine a world in which every Sunday the greatest composer of the age (or, if you agree with the Times, the greatest composer of all time) showed up at the door of a provincial church in Germany with a brand-new work of genius. But that's what happened at the Church of St. Thomas in Liepzig during the early years of Johann Sebastian Bach's tenure as music director. Through much of the 1720's and beyond (Bach held the post from 1723 till his death in 1750), the congregation enjoyed a fresh masterpiece at each week's service; it's estimated Bach wrote over 300 of these cantatas (or six years' worth of Sundays), of which about two-thirds survive.

The cantatas thus serve as a vast field of discovery for a Bach naïf like me.  Only a handful have achieved what you might call "fame," but let's just say I've yet to hear a bad one!  Which means there's always a "new" cantata out there that's going to be wonderful. And last weekend (I'm so late with this review the performers probably thought I'd forgotten about them), I got to hear three in a row with which I'm unfamiliar, (Nos. 37, 92, and 97) in "The Bach Experience,"a set of gorgeous renditions by the Handel and Haydn Society chorus and period orchestra, led by Bach specialist Mary Greer. What made the performances particularly special, however, were the soloists (particularly the male soloists); like Boston Baroque, this season Handel and Haydn seems to have been saving its best soloists for last.

These included the forceful bass Sumner Thompson, who had just triumphed as a baritone in  Les Indes Galantes, as well as lyric tenor William Ferguson, who I think may be the strongest tenor I've yet heard sing with the Society (and he's got the wide-ranging international career to back up that assessment). The women were no slouches either: mezzo Brenda Patterson had an exquisitely rich and complex tone (but not quite as much power as I would have liked), while Deborah Selig's more sizeable soprano was radiant in its bloom,despite a slight edge at its very top.

The cantatas were performed in order both numerically and chronologically, (even though the numbering system has nothing to do with the dates of their composition); 37 and 92 are nestled closely together, in 1724 and 1725, while 97 follows nearly a decade after. It's no surprise then that 37 is the simplest in its effect - written for the Feast of the Ascension, it's essentially a glowing meditation on the blessedness of the faithful.  No. 92, on the other hand, is full of sturm und drang - a literal sea-storm seems to surge in the middle of it, in fact. And 97, by way of contrast, is the most developed instrumentally; unlike the earlier cantatas, which are pretty free in form (although each revolves around the liturgical readings of the service in question) 97 is structured enough to operate as a kind of orchestral suite with voices.  Which is intriguing when one considers that its liturgical message - a quiet trust in God's grace through the vicissitudes of life - is perhaps the simplest of any of the cantatas.

Conductor Greer shaped the performances with consummate skill and thoughtfulness - although not, perhaps, with any overarching profile; these renditions were scholarly in their affect, and more attentive than interpretive.  Still, Greer drew real power from her string section during the stormy onslaught of No. 92, and a beautifully serene line from the famous violin obliggato part in No. 97 (which tenor Ferguson accompanied with sweet, simple skill).  Soprano Selig likewise excelled in her soaring aria from the same work; but the most gripping performance of the concert clearly belonged to Sumner Thompson, who seemed to ride the surges of No. 92 with desperate commitment and a burnished, resonant tone.  Faith has rarely sounded so dramatic.

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