No work of J. S. Bach has been as frequently arranged and tampered with as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” from Dame Myra Hess’s sublime piano transcription to bland anonymous digital adaptations that hover over the supermarket produce sections late at night.
So it was instructive to hear Ruben Valenzuela’s Bach Collegium San Diego present the original version of this piece performed in proper context as part of Bach’s Choral Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, the main offering in BCSD’s season-opening concert Friday (Oct. 16) at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
With the Collegium’s accomplished period instrumental ensemble supporting the chorus of twelve vibrant vocal soloists, this familiar Bach chorale radiated that combination of austere piety and sacred fervor in timbres and a performance style the Leipzig master would likely recognize. It was like seeing a classic painting restored to its original brilliance after centuries of grime had dimmed its appearance and masked its strengths.
Bach himself no doubt sensed he had a winner with this tuneful chorale elaboration, because he used it twice (with different texts) in the same cantata, sometime he rarely ever did.
In most of Bach’s sacred cantatas, the vocal soloists do the heavy lifting, and Valenzuela’s stable of soloists proved up to every demand. Bass Kyle Ferrill impressed with both his muscular recitative exploding in sermonic exhortation and an effusive aria with trumpet obbligato that evoked the splendor of a secular court. Trumpet virtuoso Kathryn Adduci provided unusually fleet and lyrical lines from a natural (i.e., valveless) trumpet, an instrument that few of its modern practitioners are able to tame.
Janelle DeStefano’s creamy mezzo-soprano suggested joyous brilliance, and tenor Dann Coakwell’s sprightly aria danced coyly with cellist Heather Vorwerck’s florid, animated obbligato. I found it impossible to resist the bright gleam and supple phrasing of soprano Jennifer Paulino’s aria, although violinist Susan Feldman’s accompanying solo line seemed timid by comparison.
Under Valenzuela’s insistent direction, the cantata’s rousing opening chorus progressed with driving force, energized in great part by the vitality of the inner voices. His keen ear for the natural stress and accents of the German text kept textures colorfully varied and cleanly defined.
To complement Bach’s sacred cantata, Valenzuela chose a secular work by Henry Purcell, Celebrate the Festival, a birthday ode for Queen Mary commissioned in 1693 by the English court and based on a text by the crown’s Poet Laureate Nahum Tate. Structurally, the ode unfolds like a Bach cantata, although Purcell was fond of capping a solo aria or duet with a choral coda rather than providing separate choral movements.
Valenzuela stressed what was unique in Purcell’s style, compact, aphoristic phrases peppered by unexpected rests and caesuras, all deftly hewn without losing the inherent sense of harmonic progression. Both vocalists and instrumentalists gave him the bright colors the music called for.
Soprano Anne-Marie Dicce joined soprano Jennifer Paulino in sweetly balanced duets in the early movements, and countertenor Reginald L. Mobley took the alto solos, showing off his ability to infuse a challenging rhapsodic line with ardor. His warm, ingratiating vocal timbre reveals none of that hooty countertenor sound—once thought to be quintessentially British, but which was really the result of inadequate technique—although at times I wish he displayed more power in climactic cadences.
Bass Kyle Ferrill was given plenty of opportunity to flaunt his fierce declamation and to duel musically with trumpeter Kathryn Arducci. A second tenor soloist, Scott Mello, added his bright, supple voice to the vocal banquet.
BCSD will bring more J. S. Bach later in the 2015-16 season, the Easter Oratorio in early April, but I cannot say I feel the slightest remorse we have heard the last of Henry Purcell for this season.