Arts & Events

American Bach Soloists Perform Bach Cantatas

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday January 30, 2016 - 02:22:00 PM

When Johann Sebastian Bach took up in 1723 the post of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, (this post having been offered first to Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner, both of whom declined), he had his work cut out for him. Bach took on musical obligations to four Lutheran churches in Leipzig as well as to the city’s town council, plus occasional responsibilities to the University of Leipzig. During Bach’s first year in Leipzig, he premiered such remarkable works as the Magnificat, the Sanctus in D Major (which would become a part of the Mass in B minor), the St. John Passion, and the cantatas Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!) and Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life). These two cantatas formed, respectively, the opening and closing works performed by American Bach Soloists on Saturday evening, January 23, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. In between these cantatas, violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova, 2016 Recipient of the Jeffrey Thomas Award, was featured in a transcription for solo violin of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Bach’s Concerto for Violin in E Major. 

Hearing these Bach cantatas in the 21st century can be a grating experience, given the harrowing admonitions of a work such as Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! The opening chorus of this cantata commands listeners to prepare for the end of the world. In this apocalyptic vision, sinners are told in no uncertain terms that no one can hide from the final Judgment. All they can do is “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!” The words and the music of this cantata are designed to strike mortal fear in us. Granted, the middle section of this cantata paints a glowing portrait of the righteous ones flourishing in Heaven. But the closing section returns to the harsh notes of fear and dread. Baritone Mischa Bouvier was outstanding in the Bass recitatives and aria in this cantata, and soprano Mary Wilson gave her customary excellent rendition of the soprano aria. Tenor Derek Chester and countertenor Jay Carter turned in fine performances in their recitatives and arias, and the American Bach Choir provided excellent choruses. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas’s conducting was crisp throughout, with a somewhat florid approach to the final chorus. 

Following this cantata, violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova performed a transcription for solo violin of Bach’s well-known Toccata and Fugue in D minor. In this transcription, one hears many similarities to Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin; and the work’s angular spareness now leaves a wholly different impression than the grandiose arrangement by Leopold Stokowski (as heard in Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia). Tatiana Chulochnikova gave a technically superb rendition of this work. 

After intermission, ABS returned with Tatiana Chulochnikova to perform Bach’s Concerto for Violin in E Major. This is a thoroughly ingratiating piece that probably dates from Bach’s early years as court Kapellmeister at Cöthen (1717-23). In Program Notes for this performance, Jeffrey Thomas and John Butt maintain that the overall structure of this work mirrors the hierarchical court life, with the ritornello constantly reminding us of the dominant position occupied by the prince, while the violin must play a subservient role at first and can only assert a relative freedom once its subservient place is established in the overall order. As part of this hierarchical order, one notes an unobtrusive but utterly necessary bass line running throughout the work. As for the solo violin part, it was admirably played by Tatiana Chulochnikova. 

The final work on the program was the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. The text of the opening chorale (proclaiming that every element of one’s being must bear witness to Christ) strikes yet another harrowing admonition. Lutheran Christianity seems to be a very demanding “All or Nothing” proposition. But the all-encompassing nature of devotion to Christ is here mirrored in the diversity of instrumentation throughout this piece. A tenor Recitative, sung by Derek Chester, is accompanied by violins and a viola. A countertenor Aria, sung by Jay Carter, is accompanied by an oboe d’amore (played by Debra Nagy). A soprano Aria, sung by Mary Wilson, is accompanied by a violin solo (played by Concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock). A tenor Aria in Part Two, sung by Derek Chester, is accompanied by a cello (played by William Skeen). An alto Recitative, sung by countertenor Jay Carter, is accompanied by an oboe da caccia (played by Debra Nagy). These instrumental accompaniments are immensely rich and varied, as though all the instruments, like all the elements of one’s being, were giving witness to Christ. The work’s final Chorale, elegantly led by conductor Jeffrey Thomas, reiterates in flowing music that Jesus shall remain the heart and soul of a true worshiper’s life.  

This program was repeated Sunday, January 24, in San Francisco, and Monday, January 25, in Davis.