musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Music for Advent and Christmas

Dorothee Mields, Johannette Zomer, soprano; William Towers, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Stephen MacLeod, bass
The Netherlands Bach Society
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Dec 22, 2009, Naarden, Grote Kerk

Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Magnificat in D (BWV 243); Overture in D (BWV 1069): ouverture; Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110); Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1675): Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1613): Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her; O Jesulein, mein Jesulein; Dirck Janszoon SWEELINCK (1591-1652): Hoe schoon lichtet de morghen ster; Jan Baptist VERRIJT (1600-1650): Currite pastores

Every year the Netherlands Bach Society performs Bach's St Matthew Passion. There is also a tradition of performing Christmas music by Bach. But it is not always his Christmas Oratorio which is performed. There are two reasons for this. The Christmas Oratorio, as famous as it may be, doesn't have the status the St Matthew Passion has. And whereas Bach didn't write cantatas for Passiontide - no cantatas were performed during Lent - he has written several cantatas for the period of Advent and Christmas, and as a result there is a much wider repertoire to choose from.

This year two vocal works by Bach were chosen: the cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110), which was written for the first Christmas Day, and the Magnificat in D (BWV 243). These were performed in the context of other music for Advent and Christmas.

The concert started with the ouverture from the Overture (Suite) in D (BWV 1069). That makes sense as Bach has used this movement for the opening chorus of Cantata 110. Next followed two compositions about the famous hymn 'Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her'. The first was a simple four-part setting by Johann Hermann Schein, of which only the first stanza was sung. Then a more extended and elaborate setting for solo voices, tutti and instruments by Andreas Hammerschmidt was performed. This is a very nice and impressive setting which shows that Hammerschmidt is a composer who is unjustly neglected. Wouldn't it be a good idea if the Netherlands Bach Society would devote a concert to his music?
Next Bach's cantata BWV 110 was performed.

The second part of the concert was devoted to the Magnificat in D. There are two versions of the Magnificat, the first of which is in E flat and was composed for a performance on the first Christmas Day of 1723. To that end it contained four interpolations of Christmas hymns in German. Later Bach reworked it and transposed it to D, and the Christmas interpolations were removed. Strangely enough it was the latter version that was performed, but with Christmas interpolations. Maybe the D major version was performed to be able to choose other Christmas interpolations than Bach himself used. Bach may have known O Jesulein, mein Jesulein by Johann Hermann Schein and Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe by Johann Michael Bach, it is very unlikely he had even heard of Dirck Janszoon Sweelinck - son of Jan Pieterszoon - and Jan Baptist Verrijt. The inclusion of the latter two was a nice gesture to Dutch music of the 17th century, which still is not really well explored.

The four interpolations were all fine pieces. The music of Jan Baptist Verrijt has been payed some attention to in recent years, but Dirck Janszoon Sweelinck's music is hardly known, and his setting of 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' in a Dutch translation is a very fine piece which deserves to belong to the standard repertoire of Christmas music. Johann Michael Bach's motet Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe is a beautiful motet for double choir.
After the concert an encore was given, an arrangement for voices and instruments of the Dutch traditional 'Heer Jesus heeft een hofken' (Lord Jesu has a garden).

In the performances there was no clear split between soloists and ripienists, and as they were regularly intermingling and the soloists also participated in the tutti sections the blending of the voices is very important, and in this respect nothing was left to be desired. This is partly due to the fact that most of the soloists are regulars with the Bach Society.

One of them is the British tenor Charles Daniels, who is one of the finest Bach interpreters around. Among all the native-English speakers on the early music scene I don't know anyone with a better German pronunciation and a better understanding of the character of German baroque music. His performances of the arias 'Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen' from Cantata 110 and 'Deposuit potentes' from the Magnificat were excellent, with an impeccable delivery of the text and in a truly speechlike manner. His voice is not that powerful, though, and as a result William Towers was a little too dominant in the duet for alto and tenor, 'Et misericordia' from the Magnificat.

In Hammerschmidt's Vom Himmel hoch and in the short solo episodes in the opening chorus of Unser Mund sei voll Lachens I noticed a pretty wide vibrato in William Towers' singing, but he kept it well under control in his arias. 'Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind' was sung with much expression and the aria 'Esurientes implevit bonis' (Magnificat) did fare just as well. Stephan MacLeod's powerful voice was perfectly suited to the aria 'Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder' (cantata 110). This and 'Quia fecit mihi magna' from the Magnificat were given very good readings.

In the first part of the concert the two sopranos were mainly involved in Hammerschmidt, but in the second part they not only shared the solos in Bach's Magnificat - and they did so very well - but also sang the two vocal parts in two of the interpolations as Currite pastores by Jan Baptist Verrijt and O Jesulein, mein Jesulein by Johann Hermann Schein are both set for two sopranos and bc. Their voices are quite different but blended perfectly and their performances were impeccable and revealed the qualities of these two pieces.

The ripienists did a great job in the tutti sections, and there were fine contributions from the wind players of the orchestra, in particular the solo oboe and the three trumpets. But the overture which opened the concert showed that a large church is not the right venue to play orchestral music. I was sitting pretty close to the ensemble, but could hardly hear the harpsichord.

In short, this was a most enjoyable and captivating concert with very fine performances of all musicians involved. It raises two questions, though.
The first is that I don't understand why Jos van Veldhoven sticks to the Italian pronunciation of Latin texts. That was how the Magnificat was performed during the concert and it is how he has recorded the Mass in B minor. It is simply historically unjustified.
Secondly, if one counts up the soloists and ripienists the sum is 15. What is the difference between this and chamber choirs as used in many performances of Bach's vocal music, for instance by the Bach Collegium Japan? What has been left of the 'new approach' which Jos van Veldhoven some years ago claimed to have adopted? He has stated he believes the theories about performances of Bach's music with one voice per part are right, and he has performed the St Matthew Passion with solo voices and four ripieno voices per choir. But with five solo voices and 10 ripieno voices this concert can hardly be considered a reflection of this principle.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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