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Tafelmusik: Bach Motets - Music to die for
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON May 13th 2018
Ivars Tourin and Tafelmusik Baroque Chamber Choir
Photo credit: Sian Richards
The choir and continuo of Tafelmusik, along with violinist Cristina Zacharias, performed brilliantly and sensitively tonight, in a performance of motets by J.S. Bach and his uncle J.C. Bach, interspersed with works for violin solo. It was a memorable evening, in which the music, words, ambience, and expression all came together in a moving way.
Instead of the medieval interpretation of the Bible, in which each passage had four different meanings, Lutheran interpretation favoured the literal meaning above all others, the main exceptions being the allegory of faith, and the eschatological meaning—the relation of all passages to the end of the world or the end of one’s life. If the first words of the Bible are “In the beginning,” the end is implicit. This made death and the end of the world excellent subjects for Bach’s music.
Director Ivars Taurin said a few words at the beginning that were more than enough to put me in the proper religious mindset. Protestants have no quick fix for guilt. I started thinking about the day I abandoned my seven-year old cousin at day camp. I had been sorry, but had I been sorry enough? What monstrous eight-year old leaves a seven-year old behind?
What was a motet in the time of Bach? It was both a genre and a style. As a genre it may seem very like a cantata: a vocal work of several movements, the alternation of chorale movements with settings of Biblical quotations—many cantatas are just like that. But Bach’s motets, while sacred, are not tied to specific liturgical days; they were written for occasions, especially for funerals. In general the style of these motets was more like a concerto, the Baroque concerto being at the same time an agreement of instruments and a kind of competition.
The evening began with J.S. Bach’s Kyrie du Lamm Gottes. The tempo was well chosen and, as always, Taurins brought good rhythmic energy to his conducting of the piece.
The program was arranged so that vocal and instrumental works alternated, like the movements of a motet. Zacharias performed the slow movement from J.S. Bach’s Sonata in C for Violin solo. I was seated very near the back of the orchestra, at some distance from the stage, and I was having difficulty in making sense of the details of her playing. I tried to see what percentage of the bow hair was touching the strings. I wondered if the words at the beginning had made her too reverent, too humble. I wondered whether she too had left her cousin behind at day camp. She finished her piece and walked offstage.
Next the choir sang J.S. Bach’s motet Ich lasse dich nicht. The choir’s diction was flawless. Every German word could be heard clearly, and those words were expressed. I understood how much Taurins had made the words and their meaning the underpinning of the program. The hissing sounds of the s consonants added to the keen pain of the closeness to death.
No applause was permitted between works, and suddenly the choir turned their faces in my direction. Zacharias began the Adagio from J.S. Bach’s Sonata in G minor and I immediately realized I had the best seat in the house. The violin was no more than four feet behind my head.
Now every nuance had an evident expressive purpose and musical logic. Every slight accent or lengthening, every ornament, every musical detail brought out the beauty of the composition. My attention was captivated. When the piece ended, I thought of the diary of Susan Burney, half a century later, describing what she thought of a violinist who, unlike the others, who tried to impress by playing loudly, brought a good deal of nuance to the music. The closer one sits to him, she related, the better he sounds. She went on to say that if she were a professional musician, she would want to play like him. I am a pianist (I gave up the violin as a service to humanity), but if I were a violinist, I would want to play like Zacharias.
Next came a funeral aria by Bach’s uncle, J.C. Bach. The texture was homorhythmic (all voices sang the same rhythm at the same time) and the meter was an irregular combination of two beats and three beats. This style came from the earliest layer of Protestant music, the Calvinist psalter of Louis Bourgeois. The French psalm settings in that book were set out with two beats for each long syllable of text, and one beat for each short syllable. The Queen of England described those psalm settings as ‘Genevan jigs’.
Like a Bach motet, in arch form, with the high point in the centre, the keystone of the arch, or the ‘heart piece’, the program soon reached the climax, the eleven-movement motet Jesu meine Freude. The performance of this work was outstanding. Again the diction and the expression of the text were very clear. The continuo performers (Alison MacKay double bass, Christina Mahler cello, and Charlotte Nediger organ) were razor sharp with their rhythm, and provided a firm foundation for the energetic expressions of the singers.
The trios and quartets of the motet (soprano soloists Hélène Brunet and Michele DeBoer, altos Simon Honeyman and Victoria Marshall, tenors Robert Kinar and Cory Knight, and bass Joel Allison) were gorgeous. In so far as the concerto aspect of the music was competitive, the prize went to Michele DeBoer for her strongly expressive singing of Gute Nacht, completely without artifice, musically right on target, and bringing the meaning home to the audience.
I cried, nevertheless, not in the solo sections, but in ‘Ihr aber sind nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich’ (You, however, are not of flesh, but of spirit), whether for personal reasons (this music is intensely personal), or because Bach designed his motet that way, this movement being the centre, or heart piece.
The concert concluded with another funeral aria by J.C. Bach, and after a standing ovation, the ensemble graciously performed an encore. Overall I could not help but admire the combination of intensity, diligent expression, and artistic humility that came out this evening, one to be remembered and emulated.