The title of yesterday afternoon’s concert by the American Bach Soloists, conducted by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, was deceptive. It was simply Bach, Handel, & Vivaldi, leading one to expect a bread-and-butter program of familiar repertoire. The actual program thwarted those expectations with two concertos, each of an instrument with relatively little “concerto attention” and two seldom-performed choral works, one of which featured a double ensemble, both choral and instrumental.
The concerto instruments were the viola d’amore (Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 392 in D major) and the oboe d’amore (Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1055a in A major). Of these two, the oboe d’amore is probably more familiar, since Bach used it frequently in his sacred music. It has a lower pitch than the oboe and a pear-shaped bell at the bottom, making it an “ancestor” of the modern English horn. The shape gives it the same darkness of tone identified with the English horn, and that tone served Bach well in many of his accompanying passages for vocal solos on sacred texts.
As the suffix to the catalog number (which is sometimes an “r”) indicates, this is a reworking of an earlier composition. BWV 1055 is a harpsichord concerto, also in A major. Like many of Bach’s concertos, it was probably composed for the Collegium Musicum that met at Gottfried Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig; so it is likely that BWV 1055a was composed for the same intimate gathering of friends making music. The oboe d’amore certainly lacks the strength of the English horn and would have been more suitable in such a setting.
Whatever its physical limitations, however, the oboe d’amore was a highly expressive instrument, which is why Bach favored it so much as a vehicle for dramatism in those sacred vocal solos. In yesterday’s performance by Debra Nagy, listeners could appreciate the full scope of that expressiveness. If the instrument itself required that her dynamics were relatively subdued, Thomas always kept the accompanying string ensemble in balance. While the sanctuary of St. Mark’s may not have been as intimate as Zimmerman’s coffee house, its splendid acoustics brought crystal clarity to both the overall composition and the engaging subtlety of Nagy’s solo work.
The viola d’amore, on the other hand, is far less familiar. It has twelve strings, only six of which are bowed. The other six are located beneath the bowed strings and serve only to resonate sympathetically with the sounds produced by the performer. The instrument thus requires extremely precise tuning; but, when the lower strings resonate properly, the effect is an eerie one, even if it is relatively subdued.
In many respects Vivaldi’s concerto is just another example of his virtuosity in composing for just about every instrument available to him. Whatever the sensitivities of the instrument may have been to resonance, he required much of the same virtuoso bowing technique that one encounters in his violin concertos. However, every now and then, he let loose with a multiple-stop gesture, which allows the entire instrument to shimmer in resonance. Elizabeth Blumenstock performed as soloist with full attentiveness to these sonorous moments, which, again, were greatly abetted by both Thomas’ sense of balance and the St. Mark’s acoustics.
As might be guessed, the double-ensemble choral selection was also by Vivaldi. This was his RV 597 setting of Psalm 112, Beatus vir (blessed is the man). The performing area in St. Mark’s is relatively modest; but it still dutifully served the separating of the American Bach Choir into two four-part choruses, each one fronted by a small string ensemble and its own oboe. The only single instrument was Corey Jamason’s organ for continuo work, placed exactly in the center.
Whatever the sacred intent of this music may have been, there are any number of signs that Vivaldi was having fun with his rhythms of alternation between the who ensembles. This gave Thomas quite a workout as he would often have to shift his attention with almost breakneck frequency. This was spatial music in full flower. Only the soloists (sopranos Kathryn Mueller and Danielle Reutter-Harrah, alto Eric Jurenas, and bass Robert Stafford) enjoyed the luxury of “fixed focus.” There was also one chorus in which the two parts united. However, this chorus was strictly for alto, tenor, and bass, lending a sonorous solemnity to the verse about the righteous being held in eternal memory.
George Frideric Handel was represented only by the final work on the program. This was his HWV 232 setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus. This was composed in 1708, while Handel was developing his career in Rome. This was also the time of Pope Clement XI’s ban on operatic performances, which did not serve Handel’s reputation as an opera composer particularly well.
If Handel felt constrained by this ban, Psalm 110 provided him with a perfect opportunity to get even, instead of getting mad. This particular Psalm is about as far as one can get from the cliché of cheerful young David praising the Lord in song and dance. It is a vivid blood-and-guts account of unflinching Old Testament vengeance and retribution, just the sort of elements of opera that Clement must have abhorred.
Handel appreciated the full literary potential of this text and made the best of it in any number of stunning ways. His writing for the chorus is particularly effective in capturing every blood-soaked syllable of the text. Indeed, the hard consonants of the Latin probably served Handel’s skill at tone painting far better than the smoother Italian with which he had worked in his operas. The result is music that makes the listener sit up and pay attention to every last detail, in awe that text for a Vespers service could be so luridly dramatic.
Thomas, the American Bach Choir, and the four soloists all threw themselves into this dramatic cauldron with energetic enthusiasm, tempered by the strict technique of historically informed performance practices. Those who expected that this would be yet another example of the sacred music of the “English” Handel quickly realized that this was “something completely different.” This was a much younger Handel, who already managed a generous bag of operatic tricks. He was also enough of a show-off kid to realize that he could put those tricks into play on sacred texts, if he was deprived of applying his talents to opera. HWV 232 must have stunned its first audience, and it is no less stunning today.