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The New York Collegium

 2006/7

Church of St Vincent Ferrer. Last Thursday, the New York Collegium presented, at its last concert of the season, three Bach cantatas with an interesting link. Two, Jesu nahm zu sich die Zw˘lfe, BWV 22, and Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, were written as trials, Bach's entries in the contest to succeed Johann Kuhnau as the music director of Leipzig. They were performed on the last Sunday before Lent, in February 1723, at the same service. They got Bach the job, even though he wasn't, initially, the burgers' first choice.

Then, after the interval, the Collegium performed Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, the first cantata that Bach performed once he had been installed at the Thomaskirche. Performed in May 1723, this cantata elaborates on the theme of the story known in England as "Dives [rich man] and Lazarus." It's considerably brighter than the two pre-Lenten cantatas. (It's worth noting that, during Lent, there was no music at Sunday services.)

Andrew Parrott led his expert band, with singers Emily van Evera, Kirsten Sollek, Marc Molomot and Curtis Streetman in the foreground, singing the solos, and Michele Eaton, Hai-Ting Chinn, Michael Steinberger, and Richard Lippold making up the chorus. Ms van Evera's soprano seemed peculiarly suited to the music, light and sweet but with a firm, unwarbling tone. Ms Sollek was also excellent. Mr Molomot sounded in better voice than I'd heard from him before, perhaps because he has become somewhat heftier. Mr Streetman's dependable bass was a good match for Bach's frequently agitated writing. In the orchestra, standouts included violinist Cynthia Roberts, oboist Stephen Hammer, and trumpeter Kris Ingles.

None of the cantatas conformed to the pattern that Bach would make familiar, in which a sequence of arias preceded by recitatives sung by the same soloist is bracketed by a chorale at the beginning and the chorale's hymn at the end. In BWV 22, the alto sings an affecting aria (there's a somewhat startling modulation at the last line of the first stanza) without a recitative, and then the bass introduces the tenor's dance-like aria. The opening movement seems snatched from a passion, with Gospel text sung by an evangelist, a Jesus, and a chorus. The chorale at the end is a surprisingly jaunty setting of the tune to "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden."

BWV 23 begins with a duet for the soprano and the alto that's followed by a recitative for the tenor, and then two choral movements, the first of which is in bright triple time, while the second is a far more grave setting of the Lutheran version of the Agnus Dei.

Die Elenden sollen essen begins with a darkly grand chorus of Psalm 22:27. This is followed by an interesting reversal of what would become standard practice. A recitative for the bass is followed by an aria for the tenor, who then sings the recitative that precedes the soprano's aria. The soprano then sings a recitative that's followed by a familiar chorale, "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan." After a bright sinfonia, the familiar pattern asserts itself at last, with recitatives and arias for alto and bass. A concluding tenor recitative leads to a recapitulation of the chorale. Interestingly, each aria, while written in the customary ABA format, confines the A section to a single line, repeated over and over. In the soprano aria, "Ich nehme mein Leiden," the word "Freuden" bursts into ripe melisma the last time it's said. The flourish is equally dazzling when repeated. (March 2007)

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