RADIANT SINGING IN THE CANTATAS TAKES THE FIRST WEEK OF THE 2019 VANCOUVER BACH FESTIVAL TO ITS HEIGHTS
THE 2019 VANCOUVER BACH FESTIVAL: Dorothee Mields (soprano), Alex Potter (alto), Samuel Boden (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Les Boréades de Montréal (dir. Francis Colpron): Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos/Cantatas, Chan Centre and Christ Church Cathedral, July 30 – August 2, 2019.
The 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival ushers in Early Music Vancouver’s 50th Anniversary season and stands as fine testimony to the historical evolution of both authentic performance and the organization itself. Historically-informed performance originally started as a grassroots inspiration of the 1960s, where enthusiasts often had to both build and learn to play their reconstructed historical instruments from scratch. The fever for assembling early music troupes was contagious in Holland, Germany and the UK and many music centers in North America had early music ‘societies’ established within only a few years. The Vancouver Society for Early Music was founded in 1969 by David Skulski, Ray Nurse, Jon Washburn, and Cuyler Page. José Verstappen became the executive director in 1979 and built the organization to the strongest international stature, further carried on by Matthew White from 2013. The change in name to Early Music Vancouver took place in 1987.
It was Nicolaus Harnoncourt’s 1964 recording of the Brandenburg Concertos that set the standards for this new world of authentic instrumentation and, aptly, this festival started with these revered works, played by Les Boréades de Montréal. Their approach had a noticeably Gallic accent and plenty of joie de vivre but the ensemble did not seek the last ounce of contrapuntal synergy or refinement; the performances of Nos. 3-5 worked best. A second monument of those times was the massive project (initiated in 1971) to record the integral Bach Cantatas with Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. The subsequent concert of three famous Cantatas paid homage, where esteemed soprano Dorothee Mields and alto Alex Potter showed just how far authentic vocal style has come and how stunning it can be.
Les Boréades de Montréal were formed in 1991 by Francis Colpron and have recorded widely for ATMA Classique. Their latest revival of Lorenzani’s opera, Nicandro e Fileno, has received particularly strong press. One innovation in this performance of the Brandenburgs was the replacement of the trumpet soloist in No. 2 by the natural horn of Alexis Basque, though I still remain as equivocal about this adjustment as when British musicologist Thurston Dart tried the innovation in his 1957 L'Oiseau-Lyre exploration. Two venues were used: Concerto Nos. 2, 4 and 6 were played in the larger Chan Centre while 1, 3 and 5 were in Christ Church Cathedral. I generally preferred the balance and tonal ambiance in the cathedral. Ensembles varying from about 6 to 15 instrumentalists were employed.
Concerto No. 2 certainly started off with a bang, at a very strong speed, with enough squawks and precipitous runs from the natural horn to keep anyone happy. While the group always made an effort to articulate dance rhythms precisely, linear energy seemed to dominate the opening Allegro. This was perhaps a rustic take, with a certain Gallic excitability and flourish, and exhibiting less contrapuntal seating and internal clarity than one might expect. A degree of sweetness informed the Andante, though with less give-and-take in the strings; the finale again aimed for buoyancy. The same linear push also sent No. 6 off at a great speed, seemingly playing down rhythmic accents for a longer-span cumulative power, and foregoing some degree of expressiveness. The remainder of the concerto turned out on the austere side, with a more cloistered response from the string players. Stronger characterization, synergy and balance were found in No. 4, and this was the highlight of the first concert. The recorders were excellent and the lower strings had more to say in achieving a natural cohesion. The Adagio had the right exploratory feel, seeking genuine beauty, and here the spirit of Bach flowed most tellingly. Concertmaster Olivier Brault added an elegant, if sometimes slightly showy, rendering of the famous Bach A minor Violin Concerto to round out the first night proceedings.
For the second concert, one noticed that Christ Church Cathedral allowed a greater resonance for the lower strings but also fostered some hardness in the violin blend. Some rawness in the ensemble’s address was apparent from the start of No. 1, which moved forth with a degree of insistence, and volumes on the loud side. Nonetheless, what most will remember here is the absolutely raucous display from the hunting horns – another strongly bucolic reference. The celebrated No. 5 featured some magnificently liquid harpsichord playing from Mark Edwards in the opening movement, and attentive orchestral playing too. The Affettuoso managed an attractive degree of repose. Yet there were times where the orchestral line seemed short winded: the counterpoint of the last movement needed to be suspended in a greater natural flow, with more dynamic sensitivity. No. 3 had some clipped accents and brazen flourish, but ultimately brought the right strength of conviction to the closing concerto of the night. Telemann’s popular Suite in A minor served as the nightcap.
Overall, Les Boréades de Montréal offered a creditable journey through these masterpieces, always finding good energy while bringing attention to certain rustic aspects of the music. The group also varied the instrumental forces between the concertos effectively. Nonetheless, it would be hard to say these performances achieved the last degree of intimacy or elegance, or maintained a suspending concentration throughout. Strong unison statements were always developed with a certain grandness and élan but transitions and subsidiary contrapuntal developments sometimes seemed aimless and inert: the group did not always find the airiness in Bach’s expression, or its lyrical charm or spirit. Similarly, some of the string work struck me as inflexible, not fully establishing a palpable give-and-take in the entries and voicings, or instating the sparkle and joyous elevation of line that make these works so endearing.
The singers in the three Cantatas took artistry to a higher level in the following concert, cultivating a stronger emotional resonance. Soprano Dorothee Mields was in a particular radiant mood, alto Alex Potter was at his flexibly imaginative best, committed and feeling, while bass-baritone Matthew Brook brought forth all his patrician elegance and subtlety. Perhaps only tenor Samuel Boden seemed less characterized.
Potter and Mields set the opening of ‘Komm du susse Todesstund’ (BWV 161) with particular sensitivity, but the orchestra did not quite match their efforts, being somewhat too clipped and matter of fact, and occasionally too loud. While Boden did not seem to fully inhabit the music in his recitative and aria, Potter’s dynamic awareness and control paid strong dividends in ‘Der Schluss ist schon gemacht’. The highlight was the closing chorale where the quartet brought forth magnificent lyrical shape and tonal blend, Mields exhibiting some wonderfully yielding phrases. The group’s choral contributions in ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen Zagen’ (BWV 12) were as imposing, both sensual and inspired, and were complemented by the wonderous expressiveness of Alex Potter and the communicative lines of Matthew Brook in their respective arias. My only concern was that the orchestra needed to establish a more seeped texture at the opening and control wind volumes more generally, but these (and the overly-insistent cello obligato in Brook’s aria) could still be considered minor distractions. Fortunately, the orchestra was much better poised and balanced in the closing ‘Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot’ (BWV 39), which was an unqualified success. Brook’s decisive, emotional proclamations, Potter’s poignant leaps of phrase and Mields’ enveloping combination of purity and feeling brought the evening to a radiant close.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019