Reformation: A Lutheran vespers service
Cantata Vespers by J S Bach
The Chiesa Ensemble (chamber ensemble of NZSO players)
Vocal soloists: Anna Sedcole – soprano, Rebecca Woodmore – alto, John Beaglehole – tenor, David Morriss – bass
Organ: Rick Erickson; harpsichord: Michael Stewart
The choir of Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul, directed by Rick Erickson
Violin Concerto in E, BWV 1042 (solo violin: Anna van der Zee)
Cantata: ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80
Motet: ‘Der Geisthilft unser Schwachheit auf’, BWV 226
Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul
Sunday 29 October, 5 pm
This was an ecumenical service, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, led by Bishop Mark Whitfield of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand, in the Anglican Cathedral, with choral support from the Cathedral choir. Earlier in the year, there was a commemorative service that involved the Roman Catholic Church at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, jointly hosted by Cardinal John Dew and Bishop Whitfield.
Ordinarily, such religious events would not attract the attention of the classical music reviewing industry. But all the important branches of the Christian church have paid attention to music and have been extremely important contributors to the composition and performance of music. In fact the music used by the early church survived, in the first few centuries mainly by oral tradition, and after the invention of notation, in manuscript records of plain chant and soon, of polyphony. The increasing sophistication of music through the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance was almost entirely thanks to the church in (almost) all of its persuasions.
So it was probably no accident that Martin Luther who was one of many who sought to reform the character of Christianity, and the most significant one, breaking from the Catholic church, was an excellent musician who knew that his message would be most successfully disseminated with the help of music. (We were reminded that the Church of England is not, strictly, a Protestant church, since its separation from Rome by King Henry VIII was almost entirely a matter of a break with Papal authority and the appropriation of the assets of religious houses, but not a matter of immediate or important doctrinal change).
And it was especially appropriate to mark this anniversary with the music of J S Bach who, as well as being perhaps the greatest composer in the western musical tradition, was certainly the greatest composer of religious music (ahem, careful! – Victoria, Palestrina?), most of which was for use in the Lutheran church.
So the service began with a ‘Prelude’, comprising the first two movements of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E, with Anna van der Zee as solo violinist. Its performance in the great reverberant space of the cathedral invested it with a particular spiritual dimension, where the virtually vibrato-less playing was given a human touch through its tonal undulations. It was a good idea to have the other two violinists and the violist standing, a gesture that seemed to draw attention to the chamber music-like performance. The second movement offered the opportunity to draw further attention to the beauties of the music and to the subtle effects produced by varying the weight of bowing during sustained notes.
It was followed by Rick Erickson’s performance of the chorale prelude, Ein feste Burg, on the digital organ (given the unavailability of the main cathedral organ): not too conspicuously different in terms of tonal quality, but not so capable of grand, imposing climactic moments; though perhaps less important given the amount of quite elaborate decoration with which it was clothed.
There followed a variety of Lutheran hymns of the 16th and 17th centuries and one based on a 3rd century Greek chant.
The next piece by Bach was his motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, which is the second of the six motets listed in the BWV, Bach catalogue. Much less familiar than Singet dem Herrn; Komm, Jesu, komm or Jesu, meine Freude, the performance was distinctive through the preponderance of high voices that were, naturally enough, especially striking in the acoustic. On the other hand, that meant that words (in the German of course) were not clearly articulated.
A setting of the Magnificat by the 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi preceded the next Bach work, the complete cantata, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’, BWV 80: no doubt the performance that was central to the entire Vespers service. It opened with the choral setting of the first verse, after which the four soloists took turns in the sequence of arias and recitatives. Beginning with the deeply impressive performance of ‘Alles, was von Gott geboren’ from bass David Morriss and soprano Anna Sedcole: his warmly illuminated, hers decorated ethereally, with a lovely cello obbligato.
The choral verse, featuring the familiar choral section, accompanied by trumpets and timpani, had the effect of anchoring the whole performance. Then tenor John Beaglehole’s recitative ‘So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbten Fahne’: much high lying, yet confident and accurate, and he was joined by alto Rebecca Woodmore in a lovely aria with the accompaniment of oboe(s), sounding deep and rich enough to be an oboe d’amore; her voice was splendidly firm and well placed.
Finally, the Offering was passed during the orchestra’s playing the last movement of the concerto, always a deeply felt yet high spirited piece.
The occasion no doubt proved an interesting and moving occasion for believers in the congregation, while the range of music, and not merely the Bach, offered a chance for all to gain an understanding of the musical context of the Lutheran Reformation.