Dallas — Recordings don’t do justice to Baroque music authentically sung and played—with authentic instruments, using authentic technique. Fortunately for Dallas, there are several groups that specialize in this type of performance practice, and the Dallas Bach Society’s Christmas-themed offering on Saturday in the sanctuary of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation was brighter and more vital than any recording you’ll ever hear.
The 16-voice chorus (honestly, they’re so good they sometimes sound like one giant voice) and orchestra of 15 began the evening with two Advent cantatas, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 62, Nun komm, der heiden Heiland, followed by a work that “used to be by Johann Sebastian Bach,” as conductor and music director James Richman informed the audience.
The first has some really astounding numbers, such as the aria for tenor, “Bewundert, o Menschen…,” performed by a tenor soloist who negotiated its extended passagework extremely well, and the duo-recitative performed by Soprano Anna Fredericka Popova and Sarah Daniels, an Alto whose strong voice has a refreshingly bright timbre.
The second cantata, once attributed to Bach, was Telemann’s Das is je gewisslich Wahr by Georg P. Telemann. The highlight of this piece was—apart from the always impeccable chorus work—the Bass aria, “Jesu, Trost der Geistlich-Armen.” Whoever the soloist was, and later I’ll get around to complaining more about having to praise him so vaguely, his commanding voice filled the room. And, speaking of basses, the Society is especially fortunate to have Randy Inman’s rock-solid violone as a part of its musical foundation.
Bringing the first half of the concert to a close was the evening’s wild card, the motet Uns ist ein Kind geboren, by Johann Ludwig Bach, cousin of the usual Bach. This work—and any group that rescues any of the myriad motets written in the Baroque deserves a medal—was delightful and full of surprises, including sections that sounded more like John Adams or Philip Glass than any Bach you might know.
The intermission—usually a marginal part of a program—was probably the most nutritious the audience had ever experienced. Decorum forbids my describing the stuffed mushrooms, meatballs, bratwurst and so forth, provided by Plano’s Bavarian Grill (through a donation from Jürgen Mahneke, with wine donated by Dr. Mark Goodson), but it’s a tribute to the skill of the Society’s chorus and orchestra that everyone returned for the second half of the program.
After fattening up the audience for the kill, Richman and company dazzled the audience with a weird, folk-dance-influenced chorus from a Telemann cantata (also entitled Uns ist en Kind geboren) before concluding with an archetype of the cantata literature, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. Richman introduced the audience to the instrument that helps give several of Bach’s cantatas their characteristic sound, the funky custom oboe that Mariana Riva managed so skillfully, before launching the group into this work that many of us had known only from recordings. Its best-known number is the literal centerpiece of the work, the tenor section feature; what most of us know, however, is either Bach’s own chorale prelude (based on this section) or someone else’s arrangement, and it’s invariably played way too slowly and self-consciously. Saturday’s rendition reclaimed the work for this cantata by imbuing it with more energy and spirit than most performances ever allow it to have.
Saturday’s program—and I’m referring now to the printed handout—was well put together, with lots of great information about the works being performed. So why were the soloists not credited for the numbers they performed? Certainly, with the general list, it was easy enough to tell who the soprano soloist was: only one was listed, so that marvelously talented and animated soprano must have been Popova (and there’s certainly only one Anna Fredericka Popova). So why were we left to deduce which of the two tenor soloists we were listening to (you know, the one whose performance is so strong, yet spends too much time looking down at his music)? And I sure wish the bass soloist for the aria in the Telemann cantata had been wearing a nametag. Please, DBS, don’t leave us wondering about the identities of the singers; let the audience know specifically whom to thank.