September 24 NYS Baroque

NYS Baroque breathes life into program dealing with death

Season-opening Syracuse concert, featuring Lutheran cantatas of Telemann and Bach, proves engaging, enlightening and informative

By David Abrams

NYS Baroque launched its 2010-2011 season in Syracuse Friday evening with a pleasant and fulfilling program that seemed to belie its curious title, “Death and Devotion.” Then again, how else do you label a concert featuring a pair of funeral cantatas?

The six-work program began with a sacred concerto by Johann Pachelbel based on the Lutheran chorale, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan — a handsome set of variations whose imaginative interplay of voices (both instrumental and vocal) evokes the concertato style of Heinrich Schütz.

The one-on-a-part ensemble of SATB voices, along with pairs of violins and viols da gamba and continuo (archlute and organ), appeared to benefit from the lively acoustics at St. David’s Church ― which yielded a sizeable sonority of sound and resonance that only rarely sounded muddy. The four singers and six instrumentalists delivered an alert and devoted performance of Pachelbel’s appealing variations of this chorale tune.

In terms of listener interest, Dietrich Buxtehude’s ground-bass variations on the chorale Herr, wennich nur dich hab’, which followed the Pachelbel, was somewhat of a let-down. Scored for soprano, two violins and continuo, the work is anchored by an uninspired six-note basso ostinato pattern whose repetitions place serious demands upon the listener’s patience. By the 24th repetition of the insipid ostinato, I was fully prepared to confess to a crime I did not commit.

The engaging Telemann cantata that followed, Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin, quickly rekindled audience enthusiasm. The funeral cantata, comprising recitatives and arias sandwiched between two outstanding chorus numbers, is perhaps best known for its haunting and mesmerizing final lament that recalls both the spirit and harmonic flavor of the poignant final chorus (Plorate filii Israel ) of Carissimi’s oratorio, Jephte ― which NYS Baroque performed at its 2009-10 season finale last April.

The four singers were strong in voice and well-balanced in ensemble during the opening and closing choruses. Bass-baritone Peter Becker ― who except for one recitative and aria pair did all the solo singing in this work ― displayed solid vocal presence and meaty pedal tones in his lower register, and sang with crisp and clear German diction throughout the performance. I particularly enjoyed his final aria, Dir ist hochselger Mann (To you, blessed man), which Becker delivered in a suitably dramatic fashion ― highlighting selected words of the text like a master raconteur.

Laura Heimes was equally impressive in her only soprano aria in the work, Brecht, ihr müden Augenlieder (Break, tired eyes), which proved a viable medium for her deeply sensitive and expressive delivery. At one point in this tender lament Heimes sang the word brecht four times in succession, rekindling the warmth and pathos with each new repetition.

>Telemann’s use of two wind obbligato instruments (oboe and recorder) as a complement to the violin, viols da gamba and continuo, added a welcome dimension of color and timbral depth to that of the four singers in this cantata. Debra Nagy, on Baroque oboe, mirrored Heimes’ deeply expressive delivery during the extended obbligato accompaniment to Heimes’ aria. I was however disappointed in Gwyn Roberts’ exaggerated staccato articulations on the recorder in this aria, which appeared singularly ill-matched to such a slow and lyrical movement. The strings delivered cleanly executed contrapuntal lines at the conclusion of the opening chorus and evoked chills among the listeners during the mesmerizing pizzicato accompaniment in the final chorus.

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 152 (Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn), like the Telemann cantata that preceded it, features only bass and soprano soloists within its recitatives and arias ― and Becker and Heimes did not disappoint.

I rarely find recitatives as interesting as the arias in dramatic works, but Becker’s authoritative delivery and text depiction had me hanging onto his every word. Although his voice by this time was showing signs of fatigue in the high register (on several occasions he resorted to falsetto), Becker’s arias and duet with Heimes was rich in voice and deep in nuance of expression. For her part, Heimes was smack-on-pitch in the tricky top-tone passages during her duet with Becker, and forged a delightful blend of timbre with the recorder, viol da gamba and continuo during the aria Stein, der über alle Schätze (Stone, which surpasses all).

The instrumental ensemble accompaniment to this cantata was buoyed by the presence of a viola d’amore ― a sonorous instrument with added strings that continue to resonate after the bowing stops. The part was played handsomely by violinist Karina Fox, who gave the listeners a brief but informative demonstration prior to the performance of the work. Except for a shaky opening Sinfonia, whose rhythmic focus appeared somewhat tentative and insecure, the instrumental accompaniment throughout the cantata was solid.

Following the two-movement Sonata in F of Buxtehude, the program closed with J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 106 (Actus tragicus). Like the earlier Telemann cantata, Actus tragicus is a funeral cantata, and although it is unlikely that this work was ever performed during Bach’s lifetime, it is widely considered today to be the composer’s best known early work (he was in his early 20s) in this genre.

Unlike the prior two cantatas on Friday’s program, Cantata No. 106 includes arias for tenor and alto ― at long last affording the audience a taste of Aaron Sheehan and Kristen Dubenion-Smith.

Sheehan delivered his brief but tender arioso, Ach, Herr! (Ah Lord!), with great warmth and expression, and his handsome tenor was firm and secure in the high register. Dubenion-Smith sang with an attractive mezzo-soprano in her one aria, In deine Hände (In your hands), and her expressive scalewise passages were right on-pitch. This aria passes to the bass soloist before returning to the alto for a stretched-out version of the chorale tune, and the testy high register appeared to push Becker to his limits. Still, there’s far too much to love in Becker’s vocal delivery to dwell on fatigue ― and it is well to remember that the bass-baritone carried the lion’s share of vocal solos in the works programmed this evening.

The instrumental ensemble of two recorders, two viols da gamba and organ provided solid support for the singers, yet rarely overpowered them. The SATB choruses were well-balanced and rich in sound throughout the work  especially during the four-voice Es ist der alte Bund (It is the old covenant), a tender and expressive lament set in the middle of this cantata, and again in the exciting contrapuntal finale.

Details Box:
What: NYS Baroque: Death and Devotion: Masterworks of the Lutheran Tradition
Where: St. David’s Episcopal Church, Dewitt NY
When: September 24, 2010
Time: Two hours, five minutes
Information: call (607) 533-4383<
Ticket prices: $25 general; $20 seniors; $10 college; K-12 students free
Website: info@nysema.com
Next Syracuse concert: A celebration of music for strings, 8 p.m. Friday, December 10, First Unitarian Universalist Church, 109 Waring Rd., Syracuse