Dallas — The Dallas Bach Society annually presents historically authentic performances of high baroque favorites such as the Passions of J.S. Bach and Handel’s perennial crowd-pleasing oratorio Messiah; equally importantly, the organization and its artistic director James Richman continually explore, for the benefit of Dallas audiences, many less well-known items from Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries, presented on historically accurate instruments with informed revival of baroque performance style.
The March 7 concert by the Bach Society at Zion Lutheran Church stayed with Handel and Bach, represented by four works for solo voices and small orchestra. While none of the items on the agenda are widely known to the broader concert audience, the evening featured a mix of works familiar to connoisseurs of the baroque as well as some music rarely heard by even faithful devotees of the music of that epoch.
Handel’s cantata Tra le fiamme for soprano and orchestra (in this case, an ensemble of nine, including Richman conducting from the harpsichord) presents a powerful glimpse of the young German composer busily absorbing the Italian style, a good four decades before the composition of Messiah (which, though quintessentially British in many ways, is packed with Italian influence). Although the text of Tra le fiamme was produced by an Italian Roman Catholic cardinal, it counterintuitively and somewhat playfully cautions against romantic involvement (one suspects the good cardinal may have known whereof he wrote) with a delightful metaphor of butterflies attracted to the flame as well as a purely pagan reference to the myth of Icarus.
The brick-and-mortar construction of Zion Lutheran can be challenging acoustically for this intimate music from another time; soprano Jillian Grace Harrison, currently an advanced student at Texas Christian University with an impressive professional résumé, has the vocal flexibility (including expert execution of the complex trills favored in the baroque) and beauty of tone for the part; her voice was covered by the orchestra at times, but blossomed into a perfect balance with the orchestra in the louder passages.
The small orchestra and Richman proved their flexibility by turning from the light-hearted, intensely secular early Handel to Bach’s deeply religious solo cantata Ich habe genug (“I have enough”). In this exploration of a longing for death, release from earthly suffering, and perfect union with God, Bach produced some of his most profound music, perfectly paced under Richman’s leadership, right up to the final transformative release from C minor to C major. Bass Patrick Gnage contributed a fine, warm and resonant performance of the vocal, with an impressively a wide range, exemplified in the phrase in the second aria in which he floated from a melisma including an E-flat above middle C down to a low G, a span just short of two octaves. Bach distilled much of the emotion of this intriguing text into a solo oboe line, performed with requisite clarity by baroque oboist MaryAnn Shore. <ed: no space between Mary and Ann as printed in the program book.
Handel returned to the program with the Psalm-based and adamantly Anglican anthem “As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams” from 1723, scored for six solo voices and a minimal instrumental accompaniment designated as “basso continuo” (which translates for practical purposes into keyboard — in this case, harpsichord — and a baroque cello). Countertenor Daniel Bubeck provided the dominant vocal presence in the second movement, “Tears are my daily food,” an exquisite and delicate response in which Bubeck’s alto line was repeatedly answered by an ensemble of four other vocalists. Moments later, Bubeck was joined by the other alto in the ensemble, Lauren Fisher, for the beautifully expansive, sustained vocal lines of the duet “Why so full of grief.” Thought this anthem is, on the whole, an intimate work, the final movement, “Put thy trust in God,” gives a hint of the choral grandeur familiar to audiences of Messiah.
Soprano Harrison returned to achieve a perfect balance in Bach’s cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (“Praise God in all Lands”); trumpeter Amanda Pepping, performing on a natural (valve-less) instrument authentic to the early eighteenth century, joined the orchestra of strings and harpsichord to add a brilliant sheen to this celebratory work, providing a triumphant finale to an intriguing an beautifully performed trip into the eighteenth century.