Seasonal Bach, No Luxury Cars in Sight

United StatesUnited States Bach, Tunder, Kuhnau, Praetorius, Böddecker: Yulia Van Doren and Catherine Webster (sopranos), Laura Pudwell (alto), Colin Balzer (tenor), Jesse Blumberg (baritone), Pacific MusicWorks, Stephen Stubbs (conductor and lute), St James Cathedral, Seattle, 1.12.2012 (BJ)

Bach: Cantata No. 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
Tunder: Wachet auf
Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata No. 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats
Kuhnau: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Arr. Praetorius: In dulci jubilo, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, Psalite Unigenito
Böddecker: Natus est Jesus
Bach: Cantata No. 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor

Tell it not in Gath: Bach, regarded by many good judges as the greatest of all composers, is nevertheless not ordinarily my glass of Sekt. I am well aware that comparisons, as Dogberry remarked, are odorous, and that one master’s gifts ought not to affect my attitude to another’s. But quite aside from the radical difference between their musical methods, Bach is a great composer about God, whereas Handel is a great composer about Man, so there is no mystery about which of the two I, being a humanist, prefer to spend my time with.

I reveal this preference, at the risk of sacrificing any good opinion I may have earned among readers over the years, simply because it emphasizes just how wonderful a concert Stephen Stubbs must have conducted to provide me with an absolutely delightful evening—yet another one, to set beside the many outstanding achievements this brilliantly gifted musician has given Seattle audiences over the past few years.

With due allowance made for their texts, replete as they are with outbursts of mawkish, “Jesus-as-bridegroom” terminology that inevitably strikes an agnostic like me as distinctly repellent, the two Bach cantatas that began and ended the program are indeed great works. They were, moreover, performed in a manner that encompassed every useful thing we know about 18th-century performance practice, while offering the luxury of gorgeous singing, as well as sumptuous playing by a dozen instrumentalists from Stubbs’s Pacific MusicWorks organization. There was also a sinfonia from another Bach cantata, No. 42, whose number in the catalog of the composer’s works was rather charmingly misprinted in the program as “BMW [instead of BWV] 42”—I hope the presenters received a sizeable subvention from the car company by way of sponsorship! This is an irrepressibly bouncy piece, and it was accorded a suitably bouncy performance.

The rest of the concert comprised a variety of attractive pieces by Bach’s older contemporary Johann Kuhnau and his forerunners Philipp Friedrich Böddecker and Franz Tunder, along with three Christmas carols in arrangements by Michael Praetorius. Tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Jesse Blumberg sang through the evening with superbly focused tone and an impeccable sense of style. Yulia Van Doren possesses a voice no less spectacularly beautiful, though in her case the line was less evenly projected: when she has smoothed out its occasional peaks and troughs, she will surely take her place among the leading young exponents of the baroque soprano repertoire. Catherine Webster, another soprano, and alto Laura Pudwell had less challenging parts to sing, but they too performed splendidly, and the five singers’ voices blended perfectly both with each other and with the vividly characterized textures of the instrumentalists.

Among the latter, I am tempted to single out Anna Marsh for special mention, if only because the baroque bassoon is not an instrument that usually makes as telling an impact as her pungent tone and crisp articulation made on this occasion. But violinists Tekla Cunningham and Emma McGrath, violists Laurie Wells and Margriet Tindemans, cellist Elisabeth Reed, and double-bassist Moriah Neils, as well as Debra Nagy and Curtis Foster on oboes and recorders, Maxine Eilander on harp, and Joseph Adam on organ, were no less polished and expressive, and when he was not standing to direct the ensemble, Stubbs himself contributed a delicate but firm lute part.

Ah, well: maybe there’s something to this Bach fellow after all.

Bernard Jacobson