‘Death and Devotion’ -- Music of the North German Baroque: Dorothee Mields (soprano), Sumner Thompson (baritone), Pacific Baroque Orchestra Instrumental Ensemble (leader: Marc Destrubé), Telus Studio Theatre, Chan Centre, February 3, 2015.

As established on her visit here two years ago, soprano Dorothee Mields is an artist of the absolutely highest caliber and one who has an innate understanding of the music of the North-German Baroque. Her vocal instrument is flawless: pure and transparent in timbre, yet capable of the most subtle inflections and cultivated shadings.  She can find both radiant sweetness and compelling emotional depth, attributes that are particularly important in a repertoire where small regional variations can imply notable harmonic differences. The works presented at ‘Death and Devotion’ were an excellent mixture of secular and non-secular texts drawn from the 17th century.  No less contributing were baritone Sumner Thompson and a Pacific Baroque Orchestra instrumental ensemble led by violinist Marc Destrubé.

The instrumental ensemble began the evening with an entry from the book of sonatas by Jonann Rosenmüller's (1619-1684), exhibiting a conscientiousness of style and perhaps bringing out an updated harmonic take on ‘Leipzigermusik.’  Begun in fugato style, this sonata for four instruments exhibited the characteristic stretching of form and delayed resolutions.  Dorothee Mields then followed with ‘Einsmamkeit, du Qual der Hertzen’, a lieder by Rosenmüller's student, Johann Philipp Kriger (1649 – 1725).  This lament to loneliness showcased the sweet transparency of Mields' voice, her remarkable capabilities for emotional resonance, as well as one supreme technical skill: her ability to modulate for maximum audibly of the text while always maintaining an authentic and graceful performance style. 

A problem handled with aplomb by both biblical and non-biblical settings of the North-German Baroque was to portray the travails of the mortal man under the pressures of romantic love vs. the passion of the soul -- all in the context of a very Protestant relationship with God.  It is likely that increasingly secular presentations were introduced when the Church needed to reach out to, and identify with. more diverse personal experiences.  And, no doubt, the most inspired of composers were able to use secular subjects as a rhetorical tool to bring the contemplating soul back into relationship with God.

Photo by Jan Gates

Photo by Jan Gates

A duet from Buxtehude's cantata, ‘Ich suchte des Nachts’, might exactly fit such a bill.  As sung by Mields and American baritone Sumner Thompson, the veil of understanding is still drawn against comprehension, as is demanded by the character of the questing soul in the text.  Thompson is an established singer with ample vocal resources, but I did notice considerably less security of style (relative to Mields) and his technical preparation was not immaculate.  In the three devotional works by Johann Ahle (1625-1673), he seemingly failed to plumb the emotional depths of the texts, made apparent by both his ignoring obvious word-painting opportunities and his overly ‘practiced’ affect, which spelled a lack of evenness and rhythmic consistency in his semi-quaver runs.  Fortunately, the admirable synergies and synchronicity between the soprano and basso continuo at least partially overrode this disappointment.

Dorothee Mields extended her reach to Latin motets with a moving performance of Buxtehude's setting of Psalm 42 from the vulgate of St. Jerome ‘Quemadmodum desiderat cervus’ (As pants the hart), a passage of great import to musicians of any period. Here, we did see word painting -- the heightening of emotional meaning by the combined use of harmony and evocation – at its finest, and employed with the best possible taste and judgement.

I also very much enjoyed Buxtehude's Ciacona in E minor, a contrapuntal work written over a ground bass, and played here in transcription. Every ground bass (or repeating pattern of tones used as a formal structural tool) must be unique, but requires specific characteristics to be effective. The ground bass used in this work involves a downwards trajectory of an octave, and gains its propulsive drive from the delayed resolution of the dominant. The resulting tension produced between the ultimate and penultimate tones (E and B) propel the entire line forward. Here the instrumental ensemble was at its best, the ground being clearly discernible throughout all of Buxtehude's variations, concluding with a three measure, five-voice cadence of the greatest distinction.

Anchored by the superb artistry of soprano Dorothee Mields, Death and Devotion yielded an insightful and inspiring evening of music in the best traditions of the North-German Baroque.


© Kate Mackin 2016