12 February 2015

Philharmonia Baroque: Trauermusik

Last Sunday I stood under the brick arches of First Congregational Church in Berkeley, waiting for my concert companion, watching the clouds scud by over the tulip trees and wondering if it would rain again. From an inner room I could hear the ethereal ululations of a singer warming up. I was there for Philharmonia Baroque's excursion down an interesting and somewhat obscure byway of the German baroque: mourning music, mostly from assorted lesser Bachs. But before the Bachs there was a brief but dignified sinfonia from George Philipp Telemann's Schwanengesang, written for the funeral of the Mayor of Hamburg. Wind instruments flowed gracefully over the striding strings. If you know the Handel Sarabande used to great effect in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon: it was similar to that in its effect of dignified mourning.

After that orchestral prelude, we heard Johann Christoph Bach's Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig (Lord, turn unto me and have mercy upon me). This Bach was a cousin of the father of Johann Sebastian Bach. Right before the piece conductor Nicholas McGegan announced a slight change in soloists: soprano Sherezade Panthaki would sing in the upcoming Trauermusik, the major piece on the program, but in the J C Bach cantata we would hear soprano Tonia D'Amelio, normally found in the chorus, as "a sinful Lutheran." The other soloists were countertenor Clifton Massey, tenor Brian Thorsett, and baritone Jeffrey Fields. Actually, they were all sinful Lutherans except the baritone, who responded to their anguished psalms with a rather jolly assurance that his grace would save them. All the soloists were very fine, and I enjoyed D'Amelio's chance to shine as a soloist. I think the acoustics in that venue don't favor the lower voices (my concert companion was quite firm on this subject); both in the chorus and among the soloists the higher voices resounded more powerfully than the lower. There's always a bit of a halo around the voices in First Congregational, which I guess is not inappropriate for a church.

The major piece on the program was the three-part Trauermusik (Mourning Music), composed for a ducal funeral by Johan Ludwig Bach, a distant cousin of J S Bach. It's a big, extravagant piece, and I'm surprised it's not better known. In addition to the four soloists, there is a double choir and of course the orchestra. Although the Biblical texts (adapted from Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and 2 Corinthians) are appropriately serious, with a mind to the heavenly life  presumably now being enjoyed by the duke being buried, the elaborate, thoughtful music speaks well of the pleasures available in this world. PBO did a pleasing, energetic job, their customary jauntiness subdued into a more appropriately funereal grace. I was glad for a chance to hear this little-known piece live; there seems to be only one recording, and I hope PBO is making one to add to their growing discography.

Suitably enough the rain returned briefly just as we left the church; a swift shower pounced on us and then moved on, leaving the streets slick with wet again, shining with jagged streetlight reflections.

Next up for Philharmonia Baroque is an all-Vivaldi concert featuring visiting violinist Rachel Podger; I've heard her play with them before, and this is sure to be a delightful concert. That's 11 - 15 March and you can get more information here.

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