A Christmas card from Handel & Haydn’s Bach family reunion

December 20, 2013 at 2:27 pm

By David Wright

“The Concert.” Pietro Longhi, 1741.

Dear Fred,

Well, a good time was had by all at the Bach family Christmas reunion Thursday night in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory.  The Handel and Haydn Society threw the party, with a handful of their players and singers and Scott Metcalfe conducting and playing the violin.

The family came in from all over: Uncle Christoph from Eisenach —everybody calls him “the profound composer”—Cousin Bernhard from Magdeburg, Cousin Ludwig from Meiningen, and the young hotshot, Cousin “Where’s the Melody” Sebastian from Leipzig.  Some people think Sebastian is going to be bigger than Uncle Christoph someday, but I don’t know about that.  His stuff is awfully complicated.  Maybe if I listen to it a few more times, I’ll get it.

I guess you can tell, we all use middle names to tell each other apart.  When the Bachs get together, the surest way to get all the men in the room to turn around is to lean in the door and say “Johann?”

I have to say, they got a first-class group to come in and do the music.  It started off with a soprano singing what is just about my favorite Advent hymn, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, and then things got pretty interesting, because they had polyphonic settings of the hymn for four, six, and eight voices by Michael Praetorius.

They did the first one so light and easy you could dance to it. The second was more flowing, but got animated toward the end, and the last was the big show, two vocal quartets singing antiphonally at each other with an orchestra of seven string players plus continuo (organ, cello, bassoon) in the middle.

The singers did great—no matter how complicated it got, they were clear and steady and well matched.  They managed to sing in that old-fashioned pure tone, not much vibrato, and still sound human, not disembodied.  The audience was so mesmerized at the end they forgot they weren’t in church—Metcalfe, the conductor, had to cue them to clap!  Anyway, I love that old stuff.

Then they switched to Sebastian’s Cantata No. 62 on that same hymn, and everything changed.  It sounded really modern—all those far-out modulations, and the counterpoint between the chorus and orchestra was intense.  But that was okay, because they sang the opening chorus with lots of drive and energy.  Still, I was glad for Lani Spahr standing up and playing the hymn tune on his big oboe, so I could hear it.

The chorus, by the way, was just four singers, one to a part, which somebody said is how Sebastian does it at his church in Leipzig, at least most of the time.  It worked for me, once my ears adjusted.

Then Sebastian got into that operatic stuff—recitatives, arias, and all—which sounds kind of weird to me in sacred music, and I’m told some of his parishioners in Leipzig feel the same way.   Anyhow the tenor, Marcio de Oliveira, sounded sweet and full of wonder in his aria Bewundert, o Menschen, even if his voice went in and out a little and he was hard to hear in the melismas, those really fast passages on one syllable.

The baritone, David McFerrin, was just the opposite in Streite, siege, starker Held!—consistently strong and clear, and he really aced the melismas, but I think he could have gotten into the warlike mood of the aria more.

Before the final chorale, there was a nice duet-recitative with soprano Brenna Wells and countertenor Martin Near.  Their tones blended beautifully—not bad, considering that Near was a last-minute substitute for alto Thea Lobo, who was ill.

They closed the first half with something a little more my speed, Johann Christoph Bach’s motet Lieber Herr Gott, wecken uns auf.  It was just a short prayer for Advent, asking God to “wake us up” to receive Christ, but Uncle Christoph opened it up with that imaginative text-setting he’s known for.  I especially liked the way he set the music dancing on the phrase “mit Freuden”—with joy.

The singers were in a double quartet, with echo effects and some close imitative counterpoint (nothing as extreme as Sebastian, of course).  Sebastian must like this piece, because he wrote some instrumental parts for it.  The interplay of the voices and instruments was great to hear, as it was all evening.

After the intermission, they put two cousins together to make an instrumental suite, with Ludwig’s Overture in G major followed by six dances by Bernhard in the same key.  There’s quite a family resemblance, so it worked—both of them have a way with a tune, kind of like our friend Handel.

There was a funny moment before they started.  All the players found themselves onstage with the house lights up, so Metcalfe, who was going to play the violin and lead the performance, proclaimed “It’s a party!” and jokingly invited the audience to continue their conversations.  That would have been a little too “authentic,” I think.  Anyhow, somebody backstage apparently got embarrassed, because the house lights then went down so low that later I could hardly read the vocal texts in the program.

When they finally did play, Ludwig’s Overture had a suave feeling to it, with those French-overture dotted rhythms sounding smooth instead of jerky, as they sometimes do, and then a zippy three-to-a-bar section lifted me out of my seat.

The instruments stood in another of those antiphonal formations, a half dozen strings on one side, four woodwinds on the other, and a belt-and-suspenders continuo (organ and harpsichord) in the middle.  In Bernhard’s dances, they had some fun taking turns—all strings on one repeat, all winds on the other, and some other clever combinations—and made a satisfyingly robust sound in the tutti.

Unlike a lot of Sebastian’s allemandes and sarabandes, you could really tell these were dances—Bernhard wrote them that way, and the players put a nice lilt under them.  In fact, I found myself wondering if Bernhard ever got to hear his music played so fetchingly in Magdeburg as they were doing it here in Boston.

Then it was time to pull out that great old music again, the Christmas pieces this time.  Samuel Scheidt—remember him?  Two singers did his Duo seraphim from the Jordan Hall balcony, like two celestial beings intertwining in rapturous counterpoint, and then eight singers with continuo onstage did a short, lively Puer natus in Bethlehem and then Gelobet seystu, Jesu Christ, an antiphonal tennis match in constantly changing meter and tempo.  What a composer—we need to hear him more often.

What better way to round off the evening than with more Praetorius?  His version of Puer natus was an elaborate piece with an expressive prelude for string quartet, then lots of tuneful bits for orchestra, chorus, and solo voices.  When the sopranos Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Margot Rood got going together, I’m telling you, the blend and the overtones were unreal.  And I loved the way the whole thing hit a climax at the end on the word “Schalle”—resonance!

And who doesn’t love In dulci jubilo at Christmas?  Praetorius put the old tune through his mixer, spinning it into variations and pulling it back together at the end—great fun.  Singet und klinget was the same thing—even the tune was similar–but longer and grander, with four solo singers spaced across the stage for a stereo effect.

Metcalfe’s conducting was nothing fancy—I’d describe it as keeping time and providing a focal point—but the results spoke for themselves, with some really lively and tuned-in music-making.

It was a swell party.  It was even fun the way the musicians hadn’t gotten around to deciding what to do with themselves when they finished playing. Leave the stage like a chamber group?  Sit there like an orchestra and chorus while conductor and soloists came and went for bows?  While they fumblingly did some of both, the audience just smiled and kept clapping.  You would have loved it.

Merry Christmas,

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.  handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A Christmas card from Handel & Haydn’s Bach family reunion”

  1. Posted Dec 25, 2013 at 8:01 am by Rosemary Kean


    Thanks for the cousinly and excellent review. It was an excellent evening of music although these 21st century ears would have enjoyed a bit more from Sebastian.


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