“Bach’s cantatas are the focal point of his œuvre. And once you’ve played or recorded them for years on end, it becomes evident just how amazing it was that one man could have been so rich, original and full of inspiration when composing. Every cantata and every aria becomes a passionate adventure where the question of routine or repetition never arises. No other composer pushed strict counterpoint to such limits or romanticism to such expressive heights. No other composer uses such rich and complex instrumentation, nor gives as much importance to musical symbolism.” – Niklaus Harnoncourt (Harmonia Mundi CD-ROM)

The Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham and the Mallarmé Chamber Players were joined by soloists Kristen Blackman, soprano, Wade Henderson, tenor, and Erica Dunkle, alto, along with Rebecca Troxler, flute, and Jane Lynch, harpsichord, under the baton of Rodney Wynkoop, for this concert of “Historical Bach.” Period instruments and performance practice of Bach’s time brought three Bach Cantatas and one Orchestral Suite to life at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham.

The program opened with one of the rarely recorded cantatas – No. 190 Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, known to have been composed for New Year’s Day in 1724. Bach later used parts of this cantata from the original manuscript for another occasion and the task of reconstructing it on available information and clues lies in the hands of well-trained musicologists. This performance employed the 1995 reconstruction of the first two movements by Diethard Hellman. The remaining verses rely on extant sources from the two versions of the cantata.

The opening chorus is a masterful polyphonic treatment of the text beginning with the first verse of Psalm 149 and continuing with words from Martin Luther’s German Te Deum. The second movement is a gorgeous chorale punctuated by recitatives gracefully and lyrically sung by Rah Bickley, Chris Legrand, and Brent Blakesley, all members of the chorus. The third movement, introduced by a lovely orchestral ritornello, was sung by one of the finest altos around, Dunkle. The next two movements were a bass recitative, sung by Patrick Charbonneau, and a duet for tenor and bass, here rendered marvelously by the full sections of the chorus. The aria with the oboe d’amore obbligato was especially wonderful. The consummate tenor soloist, Wade Henderson, sang the Recitivo leading up to the closing magnificent chorale beginning with the words “Let us devote the year to the praise of your name.” With strings, oboes. and continuo doubling the voices, and with the trumpets’ bright fanfares and the timpani’s powerful emphasis as obbligato, it was an absolutely magical moment. 

Cantata 196, Der Herr denket an uns, is a wedding cantata usually placed around 1707-08 during Bach’s time in Muhlhausen. Evidence is convincing that the cantata may have been composed for the wedding of Maria Barbara’s aunt and the pastor who had performed Bach’s marriage to her the previous year. The work opens with a sunny and moderately paced Sinfonia. The opening chorale movement begins with the title words, “Der Herr denket an uns” (“The Lord cares for us”), sung with gleeful contrapuntal activity. The third movement is a gentle and pensive soprano solo, sung beautifully by Blackman, with one of Bach’s exquisite violin obbligatos. The fourth movement, a tenor and bass duet, returns to a somewhat livelier mood; it was sung by the tenor and bass sections of the choir. The closing movement provides some of Bach’s fine counterpoint and sends the wedding crowd on a merry way.

The Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor was performed with great integrity and wit by the Mallarmé Chamber Players with Rebecca Troxler charming the audience with her stunning mastery of the baroque flute. Bach wrote four of these suites, also called overtures from the influence of the first movement, the most developed of each set. The form, established by Jean-Baptiste Lully to showcase tunes from his operas, evolved into a standard set of dances and was a forerunner of the symphony. Bach’s suites were likely composed for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. They are another demonstration of his consummate skill in summing up all of the forms of the baroque era with the exception of opera. The instrumentalists, along with Troxler, were Richard Luby and John Pruett, violins, and Suzanne Rousso, viola, and the basso continuo was provided by Barbara Krumdieck, cello, Robbie Link, bass, and Jane Lynch, harpsichord, all of whom provided steady and sure support throughout the entire concert.

The program closed with Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren, S.137, one of the choral cantatas written in Leipzig in 1725 for the 12th Sunday after Trinity. Its five movements are all based on the familiar chorale “Lobe den Herren” (“Praise to the Lord”). The opening movement features choir and orchestra in a chorale fantasy. The sopranos sing the melody in a relatively straight-forward manner while the altos, tenors and basses sing very active, imitative lines. The orchestra — with trumpets, tympani and oboes — is in constant motion. The effect is a polyphonic master work of exuberant joy. The middle movements present a dance-like aria for alto and a duetto aria for soprano and bass, all sung by the chorus sections. The fourth movement is a variation of the chorale melody sung with lyrical intensity by Henderson and spiced by the trumpet’s obbligato statements of the familiar chorale melody. The final movement is a four-part chorale setting with the oboes and the strings doubling the voice parts which is Bach’s practice in most cantatas. However for an additional zing in this joyful work he wrote independent parts for the trumpets and timpani, adding to the impact and concurrently expressing his powerful innovative skill.

This was a joyous and deeply satisfying concert. Several audience members I spoke to when leaving the church pointed out their impression that the singers and the instrumentalists all seemed to be enjoying the music with us. Ah, the only thing more delightful than listening to Bach’s music is performing it. And a good time was had by all.

Edited/corrected 2/9/10.