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EMV's "original instrument" vocals

Bach Fest raises Christ Church rafters with18th and 19th century sacred chorales

Incomparable complexity of God's own music box. Image: Pharyngial Anatomy

Early Music Vancouver (EMV) wrapped up Week One of its annual Bach Festival with a back-to-back pair of sacred chorale recitals at Christ Church Cathedral. But, aside from the venue and the shared emphasis on vocal church music, the two concerts were more striking in their differences than in their similarities.

Nearly a hundred singers – over 20 apiece for the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone lines of each score – performed in Thursday night’s programme of 19th century French Missas and Cantiques. But instrumental accompaniment was confined to just the Christ Church organ plus a lone violinist.

On the other hand, one lone soloist carried each of vocal line of the following evening’s concert of Bach cantatas, but backed by a full array of period instruments from Les Boréades de Montréal, “resident ensemble” of the 2019 Festival.

The onstage singers crammed into the cathedral’s apse were recruited from the newly-formed, professional Vancouver Bach Festival Chamber Choir, as well as the city’s long-standing amateur Bach Choir (VBC). So why would two such explicitly Bach-oriented outfits celebrate a Bach Festival with a programme of music so removed, in time and place, from Bach himself and his 17th-18th century German milieu?

It’s all about EMV’s commitment to performing each work as close as possible in “the approach, manner and style of the musical era” in which it was originally conceived, according to the group’s artistic director, Matthew White. Bach, for his weekly cantatas in the churches of Weimar and Leipzig, had no access to 100-voice choirs.

But such ensembles were the stock-in-trade of such French titans as Gabriel Fauré, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Camille Saint-Saëns or Maurice Ravel  a century or two later or even Maurice Duruflé in the mid-20th century. The two Choirs joined forces under the direction of VBC conductor Leslie Dala for the evening’s opening and closing pieces, both by Fauré.

As a conservatory student, in an early French-language Cantique, the young Fauré already shows his mastery of the large-bore chorale; in his mature D minor Mass (1887-90), he deploys the full range of chorale textures to charge drama of the Requiem with vivid salience.

In its Bach Fest version, the work was rescored for Fauré‘s own instrument of choice, the organ, as performed by frequent EMV collaborator Christina Hutton. She shared the organ loft with soprano Danielle Sampson and baritone Sumner Thompson.

Unless you twisted around in your pew, these soloists remained unseen. Their disembodied voices, skimming across the gothic wooden vaulting of the cathedral ceiling, enhanced the ethereality of the music. Of the Requiem’s seven movements, six are directed prayerfully to God. But, right after the abbreviated dies iræ, the lyrical concluding movement, In Paradisium, speaks, consolingly, straight at us poor mortals in the pews.

No such quarter is offered in Poulenc’s angular, muscular G major Mass, the centrepiece of the Festival Choir’s tour de force in between the two Fauré pieces. Written in 1937, right after the death of the Poulenc’s father and amidst the gathering clouds of World War II, the work is starkly a capella and modernistic.

But, under the baton of conductor Kathleen Allan (who, sadly for us, will now leave Vancouver to helm Toronto’s Amadeus Choir), the group mitigated the severity of the Mass with a trio of secular pieces: Milhaud’s Cantique du Rhône, Saint-Saëns’ pastel paean to Les Fleurs et les Arbres, and a rollicking Ravel rondo for biddies, dotards and youths.

The first half of the concert concluded with Hutton’s virtuosic rendering of César Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations for Organ, opus 18. And, after the last strains of Fauré, the Choir treated the audience to a haunting a capella rendering of Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas motet by way of an encore.

No encores on the heels of Friday night’s concert; what is left to say after the concluding chorale affirmation of blessings upon those who “take on themselves another’s need?” That’s the timely “punchline” of Bach’s “Refugee Cantata,” (BWV 39), the recital’s concluding piece, which elaborates upon the liturgical calendar’s designated Old Testament text ((Isaiah 58:7–8) for Trinity Sunday.

The cantata opens with a rich orchestral sinfonia (that gives plenty of play to Boréade founder Francis Colpron’s masterful recorder), which gives way to fugal settings of the text. Then bass-baritone Matthew Brook launches into a lengthy and of theologically subtle recitative.

All that we have – even breath – is on loan from God, he preaches. But no need to pay back; rather, pay forward through “mercy shown to ones neighbours.” Counter-tenor alto Alex Potter takes up the theme in a brisk aria to conclude the first half of the cantata.

At this point in the service, Brooks announces, the congregation would be treated to a long and doubtless edifying sermon before the music would resumes, this time in the New Testament words of St Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews as imputed to the Vox Christi, the Voice of Christ Himself. Brooks renders him as a pretty Hunky Jesus, singing in a limber bass-baritone, which elicits an ecstatic aria response from soprano Dorothee Mields. Then a brooding, eloquent, introspective recitative by Potter brings us to the final resounding chorale.

Theologically rich and salient as the Refugee Cantata may be, the emotional centrepiece of the evening was an earlier cantata, BWV 12, dating from Bach’s Weimar days. Although it has no soprano part, the piece leaned heavily upon tenor soloist Samuel Boden instead. The title of the work says it all: “weeping, lamentation, worry, despair” – the spiritual lot that a devout Christian proudly shares with his Saviour, according to the libretto.

In German, that comes out as Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen: four heavy spondees that set up a surging, rhythmic tide of feeling. No wonder Bach reused the theme for the climactic crucifixion scene of his monumental Saint Matthews Passion. “If you can hear that without clenching up a little,” says Potter, “you’d better get your pulse checked.”

Although not particularly churchy, he admits, he irresistibly casts himself into that mindset for every performance to sound the full depth of a Bach cantata. And in that spirit, judging from the enthusiastic reception of the cathedral audience, the ensemble members carried most of the EMV crowd with them.



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