at Grace Lutheran Church

February 17

Along with Beethoven and Brahms, J.S. Bach has long been elevated to the status of musical deity, one of the classical-music trinity; even people who snoozed through Music Appreciation can usually name the three Bs. We tend to forget that, in his own time, Bach wasn’t nearly the celebrity Georg Phillipp Telemann was. While Bach labored in semiobscurity, Telemann was the toast of central Europe–and incidentally the first choice for Bach’s job in Leipzig. Music of the Baroque’s performances of Telemann’s oratorio Der Tag des Gerichts (“The Day of Judgment”), which made up its February concert series, gave some idea of the reasons he was such hot stuff in the mid 18th century.

Telemann, a largely self-trained organist and composer, produced such a volume of work–even more than J.S.–that he reportedly could not remember just how much music he’d written. He wrote operas (40 of them), church pieces (hundreds of them), cantatas, oratorios, and instrumental pieces. His contemporary Handel said that Telemann knocked off eight-part motets like other people wrote letters. But although Telemann was hailed as a master in his day, he’s more often seen today as a skilled journeyman. He lacks the depth of a Bach or Handel–he was a little too facile for his own good. His music is almost uniformly marred by this superficiality–and that’s the primary reason his star has been eclipsed by Bach’s great spiritual sun. Bach may have written according to the same formulas, but he believed in his music and put his soul into it. (On the other hand, our day, like Telemann’s, often values appearances over depth. Look for the music of Telemann to enjoy a major revival with the bland-is-beautiful school of classical-music radio programming.)

Der Tag suffers from this superficiality, but we can still enjoy its craftsmanship. It’s a work of Telemann’s old age, composed when he was 80 and first performed in 1762. The text, by an ex-student of his, takes the form of an allegory: formal debates between such Bunyan-esque characters as Disbelief and Reason, making a statement of Christian faith without the use of Biblical or liturgical texts, and presented in the form of a series of four “contemplations.” The work as a whole demonstrates some of the lessons of maturity. The writing is elegant and evocative, whether representing the thunder of Jesus’s chariot or the eternal joy of the blessed. It was composed by someone who knew voices: this music puts no undue strain on the singers. And while it contains plenty of long-winded arias, most of the really prolix examples occur in the first half of the evening; at that age, perhaps, Telemann recognized that even the undeniable pleasures of the aria da capo may start to dim sometime in the second hour or so spent plopped upon an unpadded pew. Since Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest has great acoustics, reasonably good sight lines, and no cushions, the composer’s thoughtfulness was appreciated. Deathless art it ain’t, but Der Tag is definitely worth hearing.

Music of the Baroque is fortunate to command some of the finest musicians in the city, both singers and instrumentalists, and they performed this unfamiliar piece as readily as if they were knocking off another Messiah. This is one group that ought to have facility in vocal runs just from sheer practice; and true to form, the coloratura passages were most impressive. Conductor Thomas Wikman has achieved a good blend in the chorus–all the more remarkable for their being soloists, often of operatic quality; not all singers move so easily among styles.

The two principal soloists–baritone William Stone and mezzo-soprano Sandra Walker–were imported for the occasion; five others arose from the ranks of the choral singers as needed. Stone’s voice has darkened since he created the role of Adam in Penderecki’s Paradise Lost; his sound is rich, full, and gratifying. Walker has a tendency to cover her tone unnecessarily–singing farther back in the throat than is optimal, which produces a darker tone but can obscure diction–yet she offered a pleasing account of the twin roles of Reason and Devotion.

Tenor Bruce Fowler, looking like a young Benjamin Britten but sounding more like Peter Pears, has in the last year grown noticeably in vocal estate, and his clear, ringing voice is ideal for this repertoire. Patrice Michaels Bedi offered a crystalline, appealing soprano, while baritone Douglas Anderson was a Jesus with great authority. Tenor Kurt Hansen, who has long possessed the ideal baroque voice, particularly for the Evangelist in the Bach Passions, sounded slightly under the weather on this occasion. Mezzo-soprano Karen Brunssen, in her single solo, projected well and sounded less covered than she has sometimes in the past.

This was that rarity, the nearly flawless performance–except for one major French-horn blat (possibly inevitable), Der Tag was as perfect as a Kiri te Kanawa recording after a day of retakes, and a lot more exciting. Much of the credit goes to Wikman, whose spare, precise, and unhistrionic conducting provided a clear beat and steady direction to his forces.