Kafee mit Sterblichkeit

EMV BachFest's baroque sampler, sacred and secular, @ Christchurch 

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But the sugary froth of Handel was immediately followed by the roiling sea spume of J.S. Bach’s E minor sonata, with violinist Chloe Meyers visibly swept up in the undertow of the music. Not for nothing did an awed Beethoven declare that Johan Sebastian “shouldn’t be called ‘Bach’ [German for ‘brook’], but rather ‘Ocean’… infinite, inexhaustible…”

After surfing such a wave, the latter half of the concert inevitably seemed a bit tame by comparison. But that very domesticity was part of the charm of the two Teleman pieces on the programme, the flute-and-violin Sonata in G and the Paris Quartet “Concerto.”

These were published scores that bourgeois amateurs could buy and perform for themselves at home on affordable personal instruments – some of the first truly accessible DIY “chamber” music, decoratively tailored to middle class taste.

In between the two Telemans, PBO principal cellist Beiliang Zhu – who had been providing masterfully understated continuo all evening long – finally got to display her own virtuosity in Porpora’s flashy showpiece Cello Sonata in F major.

Whether it was the caffeine or the music, the whole recital left many in the audience too buzzed to head straight home. Seemingly half the EMV crowd poured out of the cathedral and drifted south up Burrard just in time to catch the fireworks spectacle from the bridge.

"It is the ancient law: Man, you must die!" Ecclesiasticus 14:17 Image: Wikicommons

Just a couple of days later, much the same crowd filed back into the cathedral to hear a much churchier concert with Bach more in his element as a sacred composer. In a high point of the Festival, EMV brought over the full 22 members – singers and instrumentalists – of the Swiss ensemble Gli Angeli Genève for a full evening of devotional cantatas, three by Bach and one by Teleman.

These massive works filled the hall right up to its wooden gothic vaulting, drawing all eyes up to the stained glass windows and gilt icons. As EMV artistic director Matthew White warned patrons ahead of the concert, “even if you weren’t a believer beforehand, this music will make you want to be one.”

All the more so if you tracked along with Bach’s meticulous prosody of the hymnal texts, as spelled out in the accompanying program notes. When “Christ lay in Death’s bonds,” we are told, “we should be joyful.” For, through his sacrifice, Jesus has stripped Death of “all his rights and power” so that “nothing remains but Death’s outward form." To underscore the message, the chorus lingers on the syllable "nichts" ('nothing").

The figure of Death, indeed, stalked the whole programme – unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering the provenance of these works so close on the heels of the death-dealing ordeal of Europe/s Thirty Years’ War. But all four cantatas treat Death not as a fearsome terminator; rather as a welcome liberator from the “cavern of tears that is my body.” Even the stark Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu Dir (“Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to You”) concludes with an almost giddy chorale of hope.

Seeing these cantatas in concert, I was struck by how much of the score was supported by the wind section (recorders Bart Coen and Jan Van Hoecke, oboist Emmanuel Laporte and, especially, bassoon Philippe Miqueu). All sustained by chamber organist Francis Jacob and double bass Michael Chanu providing continuo.

Impressive vocal soloists all around, but especially noteworthy – considering the sombre themes – were the more darkling timbres of countertenor Alex Potter singing alto and basso Stephan MacLeod, who conducted the whole ensemble while at the same time performing extended and soulful perorations.

Vancouver audiences can look forward to hearing Gli Angeli vocal soloists performing again, along with the full Pacific Baroque Orchestra, in the Festival’s final concert, Bach’s Trauer Ode, August 10th at UBC’s Chan Centre.



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