ACO brings seasonal solace with three Bach cantatas

Fri Mar 03, 2023 at 12:47 pm
By Rick Perdian
The American Classical Orchestra performed music of Bach Thursday night at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer.

The magnificent neo-Gothic Church of St. Vincent Ferrer was the setting for “Healing Bach,” a program by the American Classical Orchestra led by Thomas Crawford. 

The ACO is one of New York City’s premiere period-instrument ensembles, and Crawford has long been heralded as a champion of historically informed performance practices in works of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. For this concert, he also assembled eight of the finest singers on the Early Music scene, who served as both soloists and chorus.

Bach composed a cantata a week for much of his career. Most of the over 200 surviving works date from his years in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche (1723-50). For this concert, Crawford chose three cantatas from Bach’s Leipzig years that demonstrated the ingenuity which the composer brought to the genre. The were also undoubtedly calculated to showcase the exceptional forces which he had assembled to perform them.

The concert opened with Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36, which Bach composed for the first Sunday in Advent in 1731. Scored for four soloists—soprano, alto, tenor and bass—a four-part choir, and an ensemble of two oboes d’amore, two violins, viola and basso continuo, the two-part work is unique among Bach cantatas for its combination of arias and chorale without any recitatives.

In the tenor aria, “Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten”, Brian Giebler displayed not only an uncommonly clear, beautiful voice, but also his deep association with a text. The warmth and richness of bass-baritone Edmund Milly’s voice, especially his resonant lower range, coupled with his lively delivery made for a joyous “Willkommen, werter Schatz.” In the aria “Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen”, soprano Sherezade Panthaki’s vocal resplendence, especially her sumptuous, floating high notes, was at one with the resounding spirit of God’s majesty of which she sang. 

Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, BWV 18, is among the most dramatic and fascinating of all of Bach’s cantatas. Composed in 1713, when Bach was in Weimar, for the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), it is unique in that Bach wrote for four violas and no violins in the instrumental ensemble. Crawford used the version that Bach made in 1724 for Leipzig, when he added two recorders doubling the top two viola lines. 

The cantata’s opening Sinfonia is the first example of Bach’s exploration of the Italian concerto form, which was inspired by the works of his contemporary Antonio Vivaldi. Two violas are the solo instruments, with the other two violas and continuo instruments providing the accompaniment.

Soprano Corrine Byrne, who had earlier partnered with mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith in the gentle duet “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” in Cantata 18, sang the aria ”Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort.”

Enlivened by the combination of oboes and bassoon, Cantata BWV 42, Am Abend aber desselgiben Sabbats, opens with a Sinfonia that sounds much like one from a Brandenburg concerto. Tenor Lawrence Jones delivered the opening recitative to the same words with exceptional attention to the dramatic text. 

Two magnificent arias—“Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind” for alto and “Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen” for bass— form the backbone of the cantata. Countertenor Daniel Moody captured the drama inherent in the former: his entrance was a piercing and jarring intrusion into the slow, beautiful melody played by the oboes which preceded it. His ornamentation of the melody in the final section of the da capo aria was executed with particular grace.

Joseph Parrish instilled the bass aria with excitement and an air of triumph. Occasionally, he would flash a broad smile, totally befitting as he was singing of the sun shining. 

Displays of personality and emotion, however, were not confined to the singers. Bassist John Feeney and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz enlivened the continuo lines with throughout the concert. Oboists Marc Schachman and Sarah Davol provided enticing sounds in Cantatas 26 and 42. The leader of the violin section, Lisa Rautenberg played with refined tone and depth of feeling throughout.

Before the concert, Crawford gave a brief talk oriented towards the musical structure of the cantatas which were to be performed. In closing he said that none of the cantatas specifically dealt with healing, but that inherent in Bach’s music is the sense that after experiencing the depth and miraculous intelligence of the man such works evoke the feeling that all is right in the world. 

The final chorale of Cantata 42, “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” with its extended, soaring “Amen” is a prayer for peace. What could be more healing, or needed in the present day, just as it was in Bach’s time?

The American Classical Orchestra performs “Romantic Fantasy” with violinist Rachell Ellen Wong at Alice Tully Hall on May 18.

One Response to “ACO brings seasonal solace with three Bach cantatas”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2023 at 6:07 pm by Jane Troy

    What a glorious review. I so wish I had been there Not sure why I wasn’t.

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