PACIFIC BAROQUE AND GLI ANGELI GENEVE CLOSE OUT THE BACH FESTIVAL IN STYLE

Gli Angeli Genève with ripieno singers, Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Weimann (organ and conductor): Bach Cantatas BWV 146 and 198, Chan Centre, August 10, 2018.

 Photos by Jan Gates

Photos by Jan Gates

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After a full fifteen concerts, featuring some of the most exalted exponents of historical performance, the enterprising 2018 Early Music Vancouver Bach Festival comes to a close. There could not have been a more appropriate finishing touch than this concert of Bach cantatas performed by the organization’s long-affiliated Pacific Baroque Orchestra and the sterling vocalists of Gli Angeli Genève. The latter has been a staple of this and last year’s festivals, and had performed three cantatas with their own instrumental ensemble a week earlier at Christ Church Cathedral. The pair of lesser-known but equally delightful cantatas explored on this occasion were ‘Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal’ BWV 146 and ‘Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl’ BWV 198 (‘Trauer Ode’). Again, the vocal contributions of Gli Angeli Genève were fully redeeming, with an equally fine showing from Maestro Weimann and the Pacific Baroque.

The cantata BWV 146 was composed for the third Sunday after Easter; the biblical text contrasts the tribulations of earthly life with the comfort of faith and the promise of everlasting life.  On the other hand, BWV 198 was commissioned to accompany the funeral oration of the Saxon Electoress and Polish Queen Christiane Eberhardine; the poetic text, by Johann Christoph Gottsched, traces the progression from shock and grief at the princess’ death to a celebration of her greatness in life. Both cantatas are richly scored vocally as well as instrumentally, with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, four-part choir, and an orchestra of strings and continuo, augmented by transverse flute, two oboes d’amore, and taille (tenor oboe) in BWV 146, and two transverse flutes, two oboes d’amore, two violas da gamba, and two lutes in BWV 198.

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The soloists gave unalloyed pleasure. Alto Alex Potter conveyed both emotional intensity and wide expressive range, and his aria in BWV 198, ‘Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt!’ showcased his wonderful talent for long sustained tones and subtle dynamic shading. Tenor Thomas Hobbs distinguished himself by his rhythmic precision and impeccable enunciation, while bass Stephan MacLeod thrilled with his effortlessly full, resonant voice. The tenor/bass duet between Hobbs and MacLeod near the end of BWV 146, ‘Wie will ich mich freuen, wie will ich mich laben,’ had an irresistible buoyancy and incisiveness. Coming after a series of relatively serious and gloomy recitatives and arias, its dance-like ebullience provided much-needed contrast and relief. Soprano Aleksandra Lewandowska sang both her arias with sensitivity and beauty of tone, featuring a captivating top register though her lower notes occasionally lacked sufficient resonance to project over the orchestra.

In the opening and concluding chorales of each cantata, the four vocal soloists were joined by ripienists Emma Hannan (soprano), Nicholas Burns (alto), Colin Balzer (tenor), and Paul Grindlay (bass). It is perhaps a pity that this full vocal complement was not used more often, since the blending and balancing of the voices was managed so beautifully. The the clarity of contrapuntal texture in the chorus ‘An dir, du Fürbild grosser Frauen’ (from BWV 198) was especially admirable.

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The Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann provided first-rate support. Maestro Weimann himself also added a little treat: a scintillating virtuoso solo version of the opening sinfonia of BWV 146 on the positif organ. (The piece is perhaps better known in  its incarnation in the D minor harpsichord concerto BWV 1052.) In general, the orchestral accompaniments to the big opening and closing choruses of each cantata were suitably weighty and impressive without being overwhelming; the arias and recitatives received delicate and transparent support, with elegant and well-polished contributions from solo flute and violin. The conductor and ensemble evidently relished the coloristic and descriptive aspects of Bach’s scoring in BWV 198, whether in the use of pizzicato effects to suggest bells in ‘Der Glocken bebendes Getön,’ or in the extraordinarily rare combination of two violas da gamba and two lutes in ‘Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt!’ The string band (four first violins, three second violins, two violas) secured a consistently fine balance, and the continuo playing was imaginative yet unfussy, with intelligent playing from Maestro Weimann on organ and Christina Hutten on harpsichord.

It was a lovely ending to a most successful festival.

© Nicolas Krusek 2018