Anyone who has sung carols during this festive season has probably come across the dulcet German Christmas song “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.” But even among sophisticated classical music buffs, this carol may be the sole example of music by Michael Praetorius they know. The overflow crowd at La Jolla’s St. James’ Episcopal Church on Friday (Dec. 20) received a crash course on the art of Praetorius and some of his German contemporaries in a powerful, polished concert offered by BachCollegium San Diego under the direction of Ruben Valenzuela.
Getting by with more than a little help from friends, Valenzuela enlisted performers from two New York-based groups, the TENET vocal ensemble and the Dark Horse Consort, a trove of Renaissance brass players, to bring this colorful, virtuosic repertory into authentic focus. It is too easy to dismiss the music of 17th-century Germany as merely “pre-Bach,” a sandy loam in which the music of the illustrious Leipzig cantor sank its deep roots.
But the music of Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, Andreas Hammerschmidt and Samuel Scheidt has its own charm, a winning combination of the more dramatic, florid Monteverdian vocal line with the sturdy counterpoint extolled by German organists of the Reformation era. Placed in a broader cultural context, this liturgical music functioned as the aural counterpart in Lutheran German-speaking lands to the extravagant Roman Catholic archtecture and sculpture of those giants of the Counter-Reformation Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini.
Among the more amazing pieces on Valenzuela’s program was a stunning “Missa Brevis” by Hammerschmidt for mixed voices, two solo violins, sackbuts and continuo (positive organ and two theorbos). Replete with ingenious text-painting, this setting of the Kyrie and Gloria gave sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn ample opportunity to soar with radiant clarity in exuberant roulades, equalled by the florid and precisely matched duo of violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski.
Praetorius’ lovely Nativity hymn “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” featured the fleet, shapely cornetto playing of Kiri Tollaksen and vocalist Paul Tipton’s robust but elegantly focused bass. Like carols in other European countries, this one mixed liturgical Latin with the vernacular tongue, and its bouncy German ritornello made it particularly ingratiating.
Had maestro Valenzuela not included “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (in the original German, of course), many patrons would have demanded their money back. Fortunately his “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” lived up to every expectation, especially the hushed, a cappella final stanza, sung with exquisite intensity. Three other traditional carols in playful, inventive arrangements by Praetorius—“Vom Himmel hoch,” “Singet un Klinget” and “In dulci jubilo”—complemented the program’s Christmas theme.
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s “Pastorella” for two violins and continuo allowed Mealy and Andrijeski to trade riffs in antiphonal fashion with gamboling fluidity. Minus the work’s bucolic spirit, it could have turned into a competition, but their motivic alternations came off as amicable rather than challenging. A purist could complain that the Austrian violinist-composer Schmelzer did not belong on this concert, since he served the court orchestra in Vienna. But the opportunity to hear these two accomplished period violinists ply their craft in such a soloistic vehicle was worth making an exception.[php snippet=1]
The only other instrumental piece on the program was Scheidt’s short organ prelude on the chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” which Valenzuela played with clean, sensitive articulation on the small chamber instrument. His visible conducting from the organ in ensemble works was aptly minimal, having accomplished everything necessary in rehearsal. The ensemble discipline of these performers was nonpareil, yet there was ample space for ardent, expressive individual contribution. This was a rewarding musical adventure for both the early music aficionado and the generic concertgoer whose sole expectation is musical excellence.
The next pair of concerts by BachCollegium San Diego will be given Feb. 7 & 8, 2014: 1618: Bach and the Florilegium Portense.