at Saint Paul’s United Church

March 6


at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

March 12

Holy Week came a bit early this year for Music of the Baroque and the City Musick. In early March Music of the Baroque presented Bach’s Saint John Passion, and the City Musick presented the Chicago premiere of Handel’s La Resurrezione.

Johann Sebastian Bach apparently wrote five passions to correspond to his five annual sets of church cantatas for the Lutheran liturgical year. After his death in 1750–which, despite his present reputation as the greatest composer of all time, was seen as the passing of a great organist and performer–his cantata manuscripts, including the passions, were divided between his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Emanuel received the manuscripts of both the Saint John and the Saint Matthew passions, and because of his great care these masterpieces have come down to us in their entirety and in remarkable condition. Friedemann, being in desperate financial need, sold the other three passions, two of which have been lost to us. One of these was the Saint Mark Passion, which–judging from some fragments that Bach borrowed and used in other pieces, a common practice of the day–was a work on a par with his other great passions. The Saint Luke Passion that was preserved in a Leipzig manuscript appears to be the work of a Bach student or minor contemporary who engaged Bach’s assistance in composing it. We know virtually nothing of the other lost passion; no fragments have come down to us, and we don’t even know its title.

As far back as the fourth century, according to a tradition whose exact origins are unknown, the complete passion account of Matthew was recited on Palm Sunday, and the passion account of Luke was recited on Wednesday of Holy Week. By the eighth century the recitation of the passion account of Mark on Tuesday and of John on Good Friday had been added to the tradition. By the 13th century passions were being performed in psalm tones and divided between several characters and a solo narrator–the Evangelist, as this role later became known.

By the 16th century Dutch composers were setting passions to music, and from then on musical settings flourished among Catholic and Protestant composers across Europe, and became almost as standard as mass settings. There were motet passions, which were sung by a choir, and dramatic passions, in which individual parts were sung by individual singers and only the cries of the people were sung by a chorus.

By the late 17th century the Hamburg Opera was founded for the express purpose of performing religious opera, including theatrical passion settings. Into this established German passion tradition entered Bach and his settings, crowning not only the movement, but, many would argue, the whole of Western music. The two surviving Bach settings are so powerful that the Lutheran tradition dubbed him “the fifth Evangelist,” and no less a cynic than Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “one who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.”

Listeners–whether of great, little, or no faith–have always been fascinated by Bach’s magnificent blurring of the distinction between religious and aesthetic experience. Music of the Baroque’s Thomas Wikman is keenly aware of this blurring, which makes him a powerful interpreter. There were many details of his interpretation of the Saint John Passion that one could easily take issue with, but the total effect was overwhelming. I would have liked, for instance, to have heard the opening chorus move along at a much faster clip. In fact, many tempi–particularly the part two arias–were milked for sentimental qualities, or slowed to keep pace with soloists who could not sing at a faster, Baroque-style tempo.

There was, no doubt, an uneven quality to the soloists. The beautiful, elegant tenor voice of David Gordon as the Evangelist was perfect for the style, but the quivering, quarter-tone vibrato of mezzo-soprano Karen Brunssen consistently skated around the words and notes of the carefully crafted alto arias (originally written for a male alto), though she managed to show much tenderness in the aria “Es ist vollbracht!” (“It is finished”). Even other fine singers such as bass Myron Myers as Jesus and baritone Richard Cohn (who also took the bass arias) as Pilate–wonderful singers of 19th-century repertoire–were simply out of place in this style, particularly when flanking Gordon’s cleaner, crisper approach. The mixing of such different vocal styles is very distracting, and while both Myers and Cohn have beautiful big voices (perfect for Verdi, as Cohn in particular has demonstrated on numerous occasions), they were consistently difficult to understand and often wavered through difficult Baroque lines that demand a more 18th-century style.

The soprano arias–originally composed for a boy soprano–were sung by Alicia Purcell, who, despite her shrill, tight vibrato, was able to more or less encompass the notes and sing the arias with great beauty and expression. The tenor arias were sung by Kurt R. Hansen, who could be understood and who has a solid vocal technique, but who unfortunately projects a gravelly and tight tenor timbre and an unpredictable vibrato. This is a very personal thing, of course, but I find his voice difficult to listen to.

What is most impressive about Wikman’s approach–and many conductors, not only early-music conductors, could learn much from it–is his impeccable sense of balance, ensembling, and use of dynamic contrast. Wikman knows the concert spaces that he conducts in, and he has learned to utilize the acoustic advantages and disadvantages of each. Saint Paul’s allows a vast array of dynamics and Wikman takes advantage of that. The clean layering and balancing of the opening chorus was impressive indeed. Although Wikman uses modern instruments, he managed to hold back a potentially overpowering string sound and kept the players very tightly together, even in more brisk sections. What was especially impressive was that the winds, usually buried in modern-instrument performances, always cut through the strings. The biggest problem within the orchestra was the often flat viola da gamba that was incorporated into the second part of the work. Continuo sections, however, were executed with great precision, and the chorus section was remarkably well balanced, even if it had an array of vocal timbres, some of which didn’t mix in well. If text painting was sometimes overdone, or a moment sometimes a bit overly dramatic, the overall reverence and sheer musical beauty that emerged were worth having to endure such minor excesses.

While the passion genre clearly belongs to the somber time of Lent and Good Friday, the oratorio is often a vehicle of celebration. In the case of La Resurrezione the cause for celebration was Easter Sunday. We are more apt to think of Handel’s Messiah when we think of an Easter piece (or in North America, a Christmas piece), but this is a work of the mature Handel–heavy with choruses and set in English.

La Resurrezione has been going through a renaissance of sorts in recent years, because of a spectacular Christopher Hogwood recording that was followed by several highly acclaimed performances. The work so moved City Musick artistic director Elaine Scott Banks that she asked Hogwood if she might rent his parts for a Chicago performance.

The 21-year-old Handel left his native Germany for Italy in 1706, where he had a very productive four years as a composer of Italian opera. When he arrived in Rome, where the pope had forbidden the performance of such an excessive art form, Handel turned to oratorio–in effect, opera minus stage action. His talents attracted the attention of a wealthy Roman patron, and plans were made for him to write a resurrection oratorio to be performed on Easter Sunday 1708, following the Wednesday performance of an Alessandro Scarlatti passion. By all accounts the elaborate and large-scale performance was a great success, although the pope admonished the patron for allowing a woman to sing the role of Mary Magdalene; the other female roles of Mary Cleophas and the angel were sung by castrati. A repeat performance followed (with all castrati), but for reasons that are not at all clear, the work then fell into virtual oblivion until recently.

Judging from the Banks performance, the work is of such remarkably high musical quality that the Italian libretto, with its often overdone piety and sometimes masochistic reflection on Christ’s suffering, may be the reason for its disappearance. There is definitely a section or two that–even with Banks’s delightfully brisk and festive tempi–goes on simply too long.

The Apostles’ Creed that many of us memorized as children contains a very curious and often unexplained phrase: “He descended into Hell . . .” Though rarely commented on in sermons, this declaration was a reminder of the Christian belief that before Jesus died the souls of all the dead were banned from paradise. After the crucifixion and death of Jesus, those souls (the good ones at least) could be liberated from hell, which is what Jesus was believed to have been doing from late Good Friday until the resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is this scenario that La Resurrezione deals with, opening at the gates of hell with an angel who demands that Lucifer admit Jesus. Luckily, City Musick was extravagant and supplied the complete libretto and its translation for the audience to follow. Bravo.

The oratorio sets up conflict on several levels, the most obvious being that of the angel (representing Christ) and the boastful Lucifer. Another is the continued guilt and despair of Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas, which contrasts with the faith of Saint John (the Evangelist), who reminds the women of the promised fulfillment of the third day.

Choruses predominate in the familiar oratorios that Handel later wrote in England. But except for two choruses at the end of each of La Resurrezione’s two sections that all the soloists sing together, the work consists entirely of solo singing. That may be another reason why the work fell into oblivion for so many years, especially given the torturous difficulty of the vocal writing.

Luckily Banks was able to assemble a first-class ensemble of vocalists for the occasion. Although bass Wilbur Pauley’s 19th-century operatic technique was as distracting as usual, it was slightly more restrained. It was also obvious that Pauley is working on developing some Baroque vocal technique, and his runs were cleaner than in last December’s Messiah performances. Pauley loves to ham it up, and the role of Lucifer gave him plenty of chances to do so; his usually overbearing and overly dramatic vocal presence seemed appropriate in this role.

Countertenor Jeffrey Gall–who also can sing to excess, exposing a rather harsh and undefined timbre–showed considerable restraint in his role as Mary Cleophas; his voice cracked only a time or two at the end of lines he was unable to fully encompass. The rest of the time his singing was usually beautiful and somber, with many truly moving and expressive moments. The role of Saint John the Evangelist was also very well sung by tenor Mark Bleeke, who has also improved dramatically since last year’s City Musick performance of Haydn’s The Creation.

Without a doubt, however, the highlight of the evening was the singing that came from the two women. Soprano Ellen Hargis, after her wonderful City Musick Messiah debut in December, sang the angel with truly celestial qualities. Although she wasn’t projecting very well in her opening arias, she warmed up and was most effective. But the find of the evening was the debut of soprano Virginia Sublett, as Mary Magdalene, whose beautiful light voice and formidable technique rang through Pick-Staiger.

Also improving and obviously doing much homework is Banks herself. Balancing and ensembling, consistent weaknesses of her past performances, were radically improved. It used to be that her period instrumentalists were generally pretty scrappy sounding and occasionally lapsed into brilliance. Now it is just the reverse. The result was a truly spectacular Easter gift that will be treasured by those lucky enough to have heard it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.