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The Moravian Church drew a larger-than-usual audience for a substantial late-afternoon all-Bach program featuring five important local artists. The presenter, the NC Bach Festival, has found a home at this venue for many seasons. The church has one of the capital's more attractive organs, a 1902 tracker instrument by Adam Stein of Baltimore that is very well suited for baroque music. (Click here for the specs.) The acoustics of the room are excellent for music (but somewhat less good for unamplified speech). Nicely-filled, as it was on this occasion, it is an altogether outstanding space for the performance and appreciation of Bach, and there was a generous dishing-up of music in various formats, sacred and secular, for this winter concert.
Catherine Hamner and Geoffrey Simon are co-directors of music at the Moravian Church, and the two keyboardists played major roles in the program. Hamner got things underway with the organ Prelude and Fugue in G, S. 541 (listed in the program as BWV 531). The playing was fluent, and the music made a considerable impression. Simon was next, playing a deliciously anachronistic harpsichord (he called it a "revival" instrument, as opposed to a copy of an older one…) made by Thomas Goff for the famous English player Thurston Dart. This hefty two-manual device, with a metal frame and no less than seven pedals, made a somewhat larger than life sound as Simon revealed to the enchanted crowd the charms and delights of the Prelude to the English Suite No. 4, S. 809. There were more sighs of amazement as violinist Xi Yang tore into the virtuosic Prelude to the Partita in E Minor, S.1006, dazzling at every turn. To bring the first half of the concert to a close, Simon moved to the organ bench for an exhilarating rendition of the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, S. 543 – helping give us, in the process, the opportunity to have heard four preludes and two fugues as this program got underway.
Part Two began with the lovely Adagio from the Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, S. 1001, played by Izabela Spiewak, violin. (She and Yang are best known locally for their work with the Raleigh Symphony so it was a special treat to hear them in this far-more-intimate setting.)
The Easter cantata No. 158, Der Friede sei mit dir, was the afternoon's major work. This performance featured Simon as the bass-baritone soloist, joined by soprano Carol Springfield in the descant-like passages in the second number, with violinist Spiewak and organist Hamner, and with the audience making up the chorus in the finale. It was the sort of performance with bare-bones forces one can imagine being given under Bach's own direction. The singers and violinist were at the front of the church, and the organ is at the back, so there were some balance issues, but for the most part this was an effective and enjoyable rendition that elicited considerable applause.
Hamner played a lovely chorale (or chorale prelude), "Jesus Christus, unser Heiland," S. 666, that served as a fine bridge between the cantata and the program's closing work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, S. 1051, played by violists Spiewak and Yang and accompanied by Simon at that impressive harpsichord. It's not how one usually hears this music, but the performance had a lot going for it in terms of clarity and definition of the solo string parts, the sound of which is often lost in the large chamber groups that form the conventional backdrops for this score.
There's been a lot of Bach so far this season, and there's more to come. In Raleigh, on March 11, the distinguished Bach Aria Group returns for a Fletcher Opera House concert; click here for details. And in Chapel Hill, two concerts feature the Mass in B Minor and a program of cantatas and the Magnificat on March 13 and 14; click here for details of these Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir concerts, offered by Carolina Performing Arts. Last but hardly least, there will be major lectures on both of the latter programs, offered by UNC's James Moeser; for details of those, click here.