The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians deliver splendid period performances of two cantatas and a motet by J.S. Bach | April 17, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Performers and audiences alike braved parking problems and high humidity for a concert of sacred music by the Madison Bach Musicians’ namesake composer.

J.S. Bach’s achievements as a religious composer are most readily identified with his four surviving major works–the two Passions, the Mass, and the Christmas Oratorio. Devout concert performances of these masterpieces are regularly given as sacral events.

But the true heart of the work by Bach (below) in this sphere is what survives of his vast output of cantatas, mostly composed to fulfill his weekly obligations in Leipzig. In them Bach explored varieties of spiritual expression with wide-ranging inspiration. They were, however, designed for church ritual use that is no longer alive, leaving this great body of his creation (almost 200 items preserved out of some 300) without a ready and conventional performing venue.

Presenting these cantatas has been one of the MBM’s long-term commitments, and it has logically given them not in secular concert settings but in current church facilities. This latest program was thus presented in the welcoming setting of Grace Episcopal Church (below) on the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (I attended the latter.)

Artistic director Trevor Stephenson rightly addressed his selections with the kind of intimate forces Bach so often used, with only one singer and player per part.

Thus, the vocal quartet of soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’Dea, and bass David Govertsen were partnered by oboist Luke Conklin, violinists Kangwon Kim and Alicia Yang, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt, and cellist Anton TenWolde, with Stephenson on harpsichord, all using period performing techniques.

Two full cantatas were presented: BWV 32, “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (a dialogue between the devout soul and Jesus), and BWV 22, “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe”  (Jesus Takes On The Twelve Disciples) intended for the Sunday before Lent and composed as Bach’s “demo” in his job application for Leipzig. Both scores include lovely obbligato work for oboe, played with stylish sensitivity by Conklin (below).

Each of the four singers (below) was satisfying and able, though Birson’s clear and powerful voice rang out with special glory, while Govertsen delivered truly commanding bass sonority. (Below, from left, are soprano Emily Birsan, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger, tenor Daniel O’De, and bass David Govertsen.)

It was not the cantata form, but a less-familiar category of Bach’s sacred writing that was represented in closing, via one of his six surviving “motets.” These were composed often for funerals or civic occasions, and feature no explicit solo sections but call rather for vocal ensemble throughout.

Such works are too easily reckoned today as “choral” pieces, but performance by simple vocal consort is at least equally plausible. Stephenson offered the best case I have encountered for the one-per-part approach, at least in “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden.” This is not only the shortest of the lot, but the only one for which a full continuo part is written out. The vocal writing, too, is highly soloistic within the ensemble structure, so that this “chamber” approach was brilliantly convincing.

As a kind of pre-encore, Kim and Yang (right and left, respectively, below) opened the second half by playing a brief, three-movement duo-sonata by French composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

This is “cutting edge” Baroque performance work by any standards anywhere, and Madison is among few cities blessed in having a group like Stephenson’s MBM to represent it.

 

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