By Dennis D. Rooney
One of the most memorable aspects of Seraphic Fire’s all-Bach program, which took place Feb. 27 at St. Gregory’s Espicopal Church in Boca Raton, was the striking impression made by the large stained-glass sanctuary window behind the singers and players.
Two Bach cantatas (Nos. 62 and 147) and the Mass in G minor (BWV 235), composed the program, which was performed without intermission and timed nicely at 90 minutes. Conductor Patrick Dupre Quigley announced from the podium that the concert marked the first performance by Seraphic Fire in two years. Under those circumstances, the assembled vocal and instrumental forces acquitted themselves worthily in organizing and performing a very challenging program.
Praise for their enterprise must be tempered by observing a persistent tendency to emphasize rhythm over phrase, and some wandering intonation below the pitch, an unavoidable hazard when using period instruments, which included an oboe da caccia. When the cantatas are performed outside of their liturgical context, emphasis inevitably shifts from religious to artistic expression, which has the effect of placing performance considerations foremost.
The Advent cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 62), written in 1724, has solos for tenor and bass, and a duet for soprano and alto, respectively, all utilizing portions of the Hymn of the same name by Martin Luther. In “Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis,” tenor Steven Soph did not summon enough of the heroic timbre suggested by the tessitura. Bass John Buffett was appealingly vigorous in the recitative and aria: “So geht aus Gottes Herrlichkeit und Thron” and “Streite, siege, starker Held!” Soprano Nola Richardson and alto Douglas Dodson sang the duet recitative “Wir ehren diese Herrlichkeit” with good shape and vocal blend.
To produce his Mass in G minor, Bach took three arias from his cantata Es wartes alles auf dich (BWV 187) and replaced the original texts with the Kyrie, Gloria, and Cum sancto Spiritu from the Latin mass. Bass Jonathan Woody sang “Gratias agimus tibi” fluently. Alto Luthien Brackett sang “Domine Fili unigenite” serviceably, and tenor James Reese sang “Qui tollis peccata mundi” persuasively despite some effortful moments.
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) originated as another Advent cantata. Bach adapted it for performance on the Feast of the Visitation in July of 1723. It is a large-scale work that has four recitatives and four arias. The opening movement features the trumpet in a concertante role and the melody of the concluding chorale, “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” is one of Bach’s most famous melodies, due to its life as an encore piece, transcribed for solo piano by Myra Hess as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
From my seat, trumpeter Josh Cohen sounded too backward in the orchestral texture. In the recitative “Gebenedeiter Mund!” Soph was vocally reliable but again a bit short in expressive intensity. In the aria “Schäme dich, o Seele nicht,” Dodson’s articulation of the ornaments wanted crispness. Bass James Bass sang both the recitative “Verstockung kann Gewaltige veblenden” and the final aria “Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen.”
In between, soprano Rebecca Myers sang the aria “Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn,” followed by the aria “Hilf, Jesu, hilf, daß ich auch dich bekenne,” sung by tenor Steven Bradshaw, and the recitative “Der höchsten Allmacht Wunderhand,” sung by Brackett. The famous chorale melody closed the concert most pleasingly.