The Bach Choir of Bethlehem brings Bach home to Leipzig, Potsdam…and Schwäbisch-Gmünd

GermanyGermany Bach Choir of Bethlehem European Tour: Nikolaikirche, Potsdam and Thomaskirche, Leipzig. (LV)

The Bethlehem Bach Choir in front of the Thomaskirche in Dresden © Leela Breithaupt

There was a quiet, celebratory air in the Thomaskirche when the US Consul General proudly introduced the Bethlehem Choir which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. He praised it as part of the State Department’s ‘new music initiative’ and one of only 30 Bach choirs from all over the world who had been invited to perform the 66 cantatas that Bach composed during his second season of Leipzig cantatas, starting in June 1724.

The Choir made their presence felt at the very beginning of ‘Herr Christ, der hinge Gottessohn’, entering with healthy, broad, beautiful swathes of sound, conducted by Christopher Jackson with natural phrasing and graceful pacing. The orchestra was made up of strings from Bethlehem and strings and winds from the Mendelssohn Kammerorchester Leipzig, versed in playing historically informed Bach on modern instruments. They provided special moments like Anna Januj’s utterly charming soprano recorder solo and leader Elizabeth Field’s virtuoso command of Baroque affect and gesture. Soprano Nola Richardson had purity, warmth and a technique that was stunning, and tenor Lawrence Jones was ardently human. In his big aria with trumpet and oboe da caccia, ‘Wo soll ich fliehn hin’, bass Edmund Milly stole the show. ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’ was charmingly introduced by the organ, and flutist Eriko Oi was exquisite and Jones hilariously chirpy in ‘Ermuntre dich’. The last moments were particularly moving as the audience sang the final chorale along with the Choir.

The Choir took me along on their three-hour bus trip the next morning to Herrnhut, the ancestral city of Bethlehem’s founders. Jackson led the Choir and the congregation in a ‘Singstunde’ (song service) at the Herrnhut Moravian Church which they called the mother church of the Moravian diaspora. We walked through a cemetery leading to a vista overlooking the valley towards what is now Poland and Czechia where the original descendants had come from. When they sang with the congregation, the sound resonated with the rolling hills and village greens: the completion of a circle from the Moravian church in Bethlehem.

But if the concerts at Leipzig and Herrnhut had their own musical and emotional satisfactions, it was the music performed at the other stops on their tour – the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam, in their sister city of Schwäbisch-Gmünd and at the Cathedral in Salzburg – that were intended to show why they are considered one the country’s finest choirs for Bach and persuasive ambassadors for American music.

And thus, I held this review until I could get a video of the Potsdam concert on 6 June. The highlights were Schütz and Buxtehude for the locals, and Alice Parker and Caroline Shaw for the US side.

In fact, the sheer beauty of Buxtehude’s writing, which Nola Richardson and Janna Critz infused with singing of ecstatic accuracy, and the Choir’s understanding that music such as this is made up of notes and silences, made a powerful link with the emotional impact of Caroline Shaw’s six-movement To the Hands which it inspired. After a vocalized Prelude, music from Buxtehude wanders in and out of a musical fabric so granular at times that minute shifts in perspective and texture turn the musical axis upside down. This happens most movingly in the ‘Litany of the Displaced’ movement which is introduced by broken chords in the strings and wildly out of control harmonies. The final movement, ‘I would hold you’, comes to an end haltingly, with just a promise.

In Schütz’s ‘Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Welt!’, the dialogue between Field and Richardson was incomparable, and Lawrence Jones sang with a special passion. The Choir handled settings of early American hymn tunes by Carol Barnett and Alice Parker with care and dignity, and then let loose in Dominick Argento’s ‘So I’ll Sing with My Voice’.

On the nights preceding the Choir’s performance of the three Bach cantatas in Leipzig, I heard a marvelous performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Collegium 1704 from Prague in the Thomaskirche and, in the Nikolaikirche, a three-hour marathon called Motetten und Partiten im Dialog. It featured the incomparable violinist Isabelle Faust as a high priestess of Bach in a series of alternating bits and pieces of music for solo violin, mostly but not exclusively by Bach, with motets sung by the Monteverdi Choir and Members of the English Baroque Soloists. Faust first appeared behind the choir, then emerged from the organ loft, then came down the center aisle. It had vast spiritual overtones which the theatrical staging deeply enhanced, a sign of where the Festival may be headed under Michael Maul, its innovative artistic director.

6.6.2024: Soloists, Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Members of the Bach Festival Orchestra of Bethlehem and the Mendelssohn Kammerorchester of Leipzig / Christopher Jackson (conductor). Nikolaikirche, Potsdam. [reviewed by video]

Schütz – ‘Jauchzet dem Herrn’, SWV.36
Carol Barnett – ‘McKay’ from An American Thanksgiving
Bach – Motets: ‘Lobet den Herrn’, BWV.230; ‘Komm Jesu, komm’, BWV.229
Alice Parker – ‘Wondrous Love’
Buxtehude – ‘Ad manus’ from Membra Jesu Nostri
Josef Rheinberger – ‘Abendlied’, Op.69, No.3
Caroline Shaw – ‘To the Hands’
William Hawley – ‘Not One Sparrow is Forgotten’
Dominick Argento – ‘So I’ll Sing with My Voice’

10.6.2024: Soloists, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, members of the Bach Festival Orchestra of Bethlehem / Christopher Jackson (conductor). Thomaskirche Leipzig.

Bach – Cantatas 5, 96 and 180

Soloists: Nola Richardson (soprano), Janna Critz (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Jones (tenor), Edmund Milly (bass)

Laurence Vittes

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