I can recall a time when J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and a few oratorios by G. F. Handel were all a classical music aficionado needed to know about “early music.” But the passing last week of the noted British early-music director Christopher Hogwood serves as a reminder that we are now two or three generations into the era of serious, informed period music performance practice.
Although we have come a way since the pioneering musical labors of Wanda Landowska and Alfred Deller, there remain more than a few lacunae in that great span of musical development from Gregorian chant to the frilly sonatas of Bach’s prolific sons. Over the weekend (September 26 & 27) Ruben Valenzuela and his Bach Collegium San Diego performed Leipzig Legacy—the Thomaskantor Tradition, a concert that shed significant light on the 17th-century German choral tradition upon which J. S. Bach built such a grand edifice.
Now you might think that Sebastian Knüpfer, Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s immediate Leipzig predecessors, might be as familiar as Beethoven’s Viennese forerunners Joseph Haydn and W. A. Mozart. Not. Fortunately, Valenzuela’s program was not just a pious musicological excavation, but an exhilarating adventure into repertory that deserves a place in today’s choral canon.
In Schelle’s “Gott, Sende dein Licht,” the Bach Collegium caught the impassioned dramatic surge that propelled this cantata’s opening and closing choruses, a mood that J. S. Bach so resplendently created in the outer movements of his motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” BWV 225. Valenzuela’s approach to this motet, which is a favorite among touring college choirs, was the most unabashedly euphoric I have ever experienced. And Kuhnau’s effervescent fugal writing in “Gott sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte” made the point that Bach’s joyous counterpoint in his Cantata 153 for New Year’s Day is rooted the warp and woof of decades of German choral practice that came before him.
Throughout this extensive program (two and ½ hours with an interval), Valenzuela drew from his dozen choral singers its customary vibrant sonority, at once resonant and polished, clean in the detail of phrasing, but always brimming with unquenchable drive and emotional fire. It is that latter quality that sets the Bach Collegium apart from other fine choral groups and made Schelle’s cantata “Christus, der its mein Leben” so compelling. Based on a poetic text drenched in Lutheran piety of an intensely personal quality—think of today’s gospel music sung in African-American Pentacostal churches—the cantata came to life with the robust exchanges among the many soloists and the jubilant conclusory affirmations of the whole choir.
Among these soloists allow me to shout out the soprano section, Courtney Curtis, Anne-Marie Dicce, and Katie Walders, for their beautifully balanced, animated trios in the Schelle and bass Patrick Walders for his stentorian declamations. Countertenor Reginald Mobley dared the listener to ignore his florid, quasi-operatic recitative in the Bach Cantata 153, and in the same cantata tenor Derek Chester raised the emotional stakes even higher tearing through his aria with a stormy rage demanded by the text. In Kuhnau’s “Gott, sei mir gnädig,” alto Angela Young Smucker sailed through the fioritura in her aria, and bass Jeff Fields enlivened his solos by bringing out the composer’s text painting even in the treacherously low register of the bass range.
Under the leadership of concertmaster Pierre Joubert, the Collegium’s fourteen strings and assorted continuo instruments sounded unusually cohesive and burnished in all of their solo and accompanimental roles. I attended the Saturday performance at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park, a room smaller but with a proportionally higher ceiling than Bach Collegium’s usual home at St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla. The instruments’ ensemble sound proved more relaxed and fuller in this Balboa Park location, and their one solo work, A Pavane and Galliard by Johann Hermann Schein, unfolded with great dignity—even the spirited galliard.