Musica Sacra: first of three baroque concerts

Harmonische Freude – German Baroque music – directed by Robert Oliver

Telemann: ‘Sei getreu bis in der Tod’, TWV1:12184, Quartet No 6 in E minor; Phillipp Heinrich Erlebach: Songs from Harmonische Freude, Nos 12, 21, 14, 2; J S Bach: ‘Der Herr denket an uns’ BWV 196.

Baroque Voices (director: Pepe Becker; Katherine Hodge, John Fraser, David Morriss), Academia Sanctae Mariae (leader: Gregory Squire, with Anne Loeser, Shelley Wilkinson, Katrin Eickhorst-Squire, Robert Oliver, Douglas Mews)

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Sunday 2 August 2009

The collaboration of two groups, vocal and instrumental, under the title Musica Sacra, has been presenting a series of concerts in the latter part of the year at St Mary of the Angels for a number of years. As far as I’m aware, the Academia performs in no other context, but Baroque Voices has a long-standing presence in Wellington as a chamber choir.

This was the first of the three concerts of their 2009 series, this one devoted to German sacred music: two familiar composers, but one unknown, I imagine, to most of us.

Telemann came first, with a cantata that could well pass for Bach to all but the specialist. Instruments played a slow introduction and then the four solo voices entered one at a time, well contrasted and stylistically sensitive. The following sections allowed each voice its turn; David Morriss’s bass seems to have developed in both projection and resonance since I last heard him; in the alto part, Katherine Hodge displayed a most attractive timbre that expressed the gentle piety of the words. The combination of Pepe Becker’s ecstatic soprano with Robert Oliver’s bass viol seemed rather at odds with the scourging words, reviling ‘vain pleasure’; and finally John Fraser sang the more sprightly tenor aria with a voice more at ease with the physical world, accompanied by violins.

Telemann wrote six instrumental quartets – not really the forerunners of Haydn’s – for Paris. Some features: the flute part taken by Katrin Eickhorst-Squire on a ‘voice flute’ = recorder, Squire’s violin given to flamboyant cadenzas, Robert Oliver’s viola da gamba, enjoying some particularly attractive passages, and Douglas Mews at the chamber organ (lent by the NZ School of Music) duetted charmingly with the recorder in the second movement. The organ, often embedded in the continuo textures, supplied a bass timbre in genial contrast to the bass viol.

In contrast to the cantata, these chamber pieces for a Parisian audience, much in triple rhythm, showed signs of the emerging ‘galant’ style, marking the end of the Baroque age.

The programme note enlightened (most of) us about the composer Erlbach, of the generation before Bach. Most of his works were lost in a fire but these songs, for all the strangely naïve piety of the words, proved beautifully adapted to soprano, alto and tenor and also offered rewarding passages, for example in song XIV, for violinists Squire and Loeser and gambist Oliver. The music, one had to say, was a rather more cultivated than the words.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the nature of contemporary English or French poetry, both with several centuries of prolific, more polished and cultivated literary activity than had taken place in German lands. And their civilizations had not been rent by a Thirty Years War.

Yet the words and music again gave Pepe Becker, alone in Song II, scope for floating the long flowing lines that were beautifully enhanced by the church acoustic.

The programme note claimed this to have been the New Zealand premiere of Bach’s Cantata No 196 (it must be very hard to be certain), thought to be for a family wedding. This performance should result in its gaining a foot-hold, for it is a setting of great musical delight, starting with a chorus of celebratory vitality. And then an aria for soprano and a duet for tenor and bass, a chance to hear David Morriss, this time, in happy wedding spirit.

The programme had been devised so that lesser but by no means worthless music laid the ground for this fine, entertaining Bach cantata and it left the audience well contented.

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