Just because J.S. Bach has become a familiar, household name does not mean that even sophisticated music lovers know the breadth of his vast compositional output. Yes, the “Bach’s greatest hits” list is pretty imposing—the Brandenberg Concertos, the two Passions, the B Minor Mass and Magnificat, the French keyboard suites and a number of flashy organ solos, notably the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
But these great works are just the tip of the iceberg, as Bach Collegium San Diego Music Director Ruben Valenzuela reminded his Saturday (October 15) audience gathered at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma. And the Bach Collegium San Diego intends to do something about this lacuna, so watch out and pay attention!
After giving his short sermon—from the All Souls’ pulpit, no less—Valenzuela took his place at the harpsichord and launched into the Bach Collegium’s spirited all-Bach concert of two cantatas and a sinfonia few people in the audience (or even the musicians assembled on the All Souls’ chancel) had experienced before, at least in live performance.
True to their vaunted reputation, the Bach Collegium singers tore into the opening chorus of Cantata No.179, “See that Your Fear of God is not Hypocrisy!” with ardent declamation, bright vocal colors, and solid rhythmic accents. (I have decided to translate all the German titles to make it easier for the reader, but, of course, the Bach Collegium sang these works in German, as J. S. Bach and God Almighty surely intended!) Bach wrote this cantata in his first year as Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church Cantor (1723) for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity in the Lutheran liturgical calendar, and the entire cantata builds a musical sermon based on the appointed Gospel lesson of that Sunday, a New Testament story known as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or tax-collector, to use a more contemporary term).
With the choir’s strident opening admonition still ringing in the church sanctuary, tenor Scott Mello launched into the text’s stinging rebuke of pious current day church members who were nothing but “puffed up Pharisees,” in the unvarnished prose of the anonymous cantata librettist. Mello’s rich but beautifully focused tenor and his faultless German diction delivered this rebuke with apparent relish and carried this spirit over into his aria that followed, “False Hypocrites.” While Mello pursued his tart vocal reproaches, Valenzuela deftly underscored the sharply etched, mocking rhythmic accents in the instrumental accompaniment that Bach wove into his musical texture to heighten the impact of the text.
Having given due time to portraying hypocrites, Bach gave the baritone the task of urging faithful Christians to imitate the simple repentance of the parable’s lowly tax-collector, which Tyler Duncan intoned with ardent lyricism. Soprano Margot Rood persuasively embodied the sinner’s plea for mercy in her aria that followed, “Dearest God, be merciful,” gracefully shaping every phrase with her pure, gleaming tone. Unfortunately, the oboes and bassoon overbalanced her, so some of the balm of her aria was lost.
The full chorus then closed the cantata with a sturdy chorale of contrition. Keeping up the Bach Collegium’s own high standards, under Valenzuela’s firm, clear direction, the dozen instrumentalists on period instruments proved stylish in every detail, displaying tight ensembles in the varying combinations the score required. My only cavil was the small number of upper strings. Especially since the continuo group consisted of five players (sometimes six, counting the bassoon), two violins and a single viola did not hold their own against such a strong bass section.
Based on an apocalyptic text from the Gospel of Matthew, Cantata No. 70 “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!” for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity is a more extensively developed sermon urging the faithful to prepare for the Day of Judgement. Such a theme naturally required Bach to add a trumpet to his instrumental forces, which gave the opening rousing chorus added brilliance and, in a later movement, a novel bit of counterpoint. In the baritone’s agitated recitative that describes Judgement Day, a kind of Lutheran “Dies Irae,” Bach has the trumpet intone a traditional apocalyptic chorale “Now Surely Has the Day Appeared” in disconnected phrases, an unexpected juxtaposition that shows how radical Bach could be when a crazy idea entered his pious Lutheran imagination. Had Charles Ives lived in Bach’s time, this is the sort of stunt he would have done with alacrity! Trumpeter Kathryn Adduci handled her natural trumpet with confident finesse in the recitative as well as the big choral movements.
Duncan’s powerful baritone voice and dramatic flare proved ideal for these colorful rants—his first recitative opened with the accusation, “Be frightened, you impenitent sinners!”—and he proved equally persuasive in his consoling aria “Blissful day of refreshment.”
In Cantata 70 we heard the sweetly lyrical countertenor Reginald Mobley sing “When does the day come when we depart?” an aria that called upon his best asset, a creamy upper range that easily carried into the room over the instruments, a serious challenge in an aria with such an overwrought bass line. In soprano Rood’s aria “Let cynics’ tongues utter abuse,” Valenzuela again cultivated the snarling curlicues of Bach’s highly descriptive instrumental accompaniment. I also admired the gentle, dance-like rhythmic character Valenzuela coaxed from the chorale “Rejoice greatly, o my soul,” since it was originally a Geneva psalm tune based on Renaisssance Italian dance.
Valenzuela opened the concert with a short sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, “On the Evening of the Same Day,” written for Easter Day of 1725. This gently roiling instrumental work with charming oboe solos in the center section brought to mind the Ouvertures Bach wrote when he was in Cöthen, the court position he held before moving to Leipzig. It opened a serious program on a welcome lighter note.
The program Welcome to Leipzig was performed by the Bach Collegium San Diego on October 14, 2016, in Cardiff at the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church and on October 15, 2016, at the All Souls’ Episcopal Church in San Diego. This review was based on the second performance. The next BCSD offering will be G. F. Handel’s Messiah on December 17-19, 2016. bachcollegiumsd.org