Dallas — The sun had set by the time Saturday night’s concert of the Dallas Bach Society began, rendering the brilliant Sunday morning colors of Zion Lutheran Church’s stained glass nonexistent; the resulting subdued aura was perfect, however, for the mood of this concert of 17th-and early 18th-century German religious music directed by James Richman. As always in concerts of the Bach family, the instruments, as well as the performance style and production, were rooted in authentic historical practice, including the construction of instruments to match those of the German baroque.
Indeed, the very site of the concert, in a modern building on the grounds one of Dallas’s oldest churches, provided a historical link to the music; hardy German pioneers carried the faith of Luther and Bach to Dallas with them in the late 19th century, and staked the theology of the Reformation into the soil of north Texas in the form of Zion Lutheran Church. The sleek, sharp-angled modern building which now sits on the original site might have puzzled Bach and Luther; the clean but resonant acoustic would, however, have been suitable to Bach’s taste and compositional technique.
The concert opened, however, not with austerity, but with Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in Death’s Bonds), a work intended not for the penitential season of Lent but for Easter. Although this is the earliest of Bach’s 209 surviving cantatas, the composer’s mature style is clearly evident; the small sixteen-member chorus and orchestra of six strings and harpsichord maneuvered, under Richman’s steady direction from the keyboard, through a work in which the sturdy hymn melody with words by Luther sometimes soars above, sometimes threads through a brilliantly complex texture. The work is hardly jubilant—Bach escapes from the predominant E minor to E major only twice, at the end of the first and the final movements—but the text by Luther and setting by Bach convey a sense of solid faith. (Luther’s particularly earthy metaphors abound as well, in references to the lamb of God roasted in the fire of love, as well as the final admonition to live on Easter cakes rather than the old sour dough of life without Christ.)
The mood became much more austere and Lenten in the setting of The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross by Heinrich Schütz, who was born a century before Bach in 1585. Richman leaned toward a richly resonant sound from the chorus and full instrumental ensemble in the opening and closing sections, contrasting with the largely dramatic recitative of the body of the work, with Nicholas Garza displaying a stunningly wide range as the narrating Evangelist and Patrick Gnage providing a deep, resonant bass voice for the words of Christ.
The Bach cantata contained seven movements, and the Schütz work was obviously built around the number seven; the final work on the concert, Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri of 1680, is an oratorio made up of seven short cantatas; Bach and his contemporaries would doubtless have approved of the significant numerology of three times seven. Fascinating elements abound in the rarely performed Buxtehude oratorio, the title of which translates as The Most Holy Body Parts of the Suffering Jesus; the seven cantatas meditate, consecutively, on the Feet, the Knees, the Hands, the Sides, the Breast, the Heart, and the Face of Jesus, giving us a remarkable glimpse of 17th-century Lutheran theology.
Membra Jesu Nostri absolutely deserves attention for the remarkable compositional strategies it employs—for instance the arrestingly mysterious opening ensemble of the Heart cantata, the amazing falling harmonic progression in the opening chorus of the cantata devoted to the Knees, and joyous, flowing melismas of the final chorus, after a largely reflective work. But it is impossible, in 2017, to hear this work without observing this origin of gestures that would turn up in the music of Bach and Handel (both of whom knew Buxtehude personally), and are echoed even in the choral-orchestral works of Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Mahler. Among the impeccable vocal soloists, soprano Anna Fredericka Popova provided a particularly fine and stunning performance; as always in a concert of the Dallas Bach Society, the audience not only heard great music but experienced the re-creation of a different era as expressed in music.