In my house, Christmas means Bach. No other music evokes the spirit of the season in quite the same way. (Sorry, Messiah and Mariah.) So in the week leading up to the holiday, I jumped at the chance to hear an all-cantata program from the Gamut Bach Ensemble, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. And if critics are Grinches, as many believe, the evening made my heart grow at least three sizes.
An authentic sound
Part of the evening’s special quality came from the choice of venue. The Church of the Holy Trinity, just off Rittenhouse Square, is certainly valuable for its crisp acoustics alone. More importantly, the decision to hold the concert there returns Bach’s music to the kind of sacred space for which it was composed. Even for the most stridently secular among us (like yours truly), it adds a certain poignancy to the experience.
The music matters too, and conductor Koji Otsuki led a performance that incisively balanced the vocal and instrumental demands of these scores. The chamber ensemble played modern instruments, but the sound that emerged was always lean and focused, which suggested historically informed practice. The quartet of soloists similarly tamped down their large-scale voices and did away with any hint of vibrato, sustaining an air of purity.
Bach times four
Only one of the four cantatas presented on the program, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes), was actually written to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps that’s why it came across best. Or maybe that had to do with its placement right after the intermission, by which point the singers were sufficiently warmed up and the instrumentalists had found a mellow groove.
Jessica Beebe’s soprano bounced like a beam of light throughout the sanctuary, as she rejoiced over the news of the Savior’s birth. Sara Couldon projected an aura of calm in the aria “In Jesu Demut kann ich Trost” (In Jesus’s humility, I can find comfort), her columnar contralto forceful without being overpowering.
Baritone Elijah Blaisdell does not possess the stentorian sound one desires for the bass solos, but he sang with elegance and refinement—qualities that go a long way in this music. On the other hand, James Reese flaunts a reedy tenor that’s tailor-made for Bach; he was captivating in the recitative “Du teurer Gottessohn” (You precious Son of God). When the four came together for the concluding chorale, it was, to borrow from the text, paradise.
Moments of brilliance
The singers each had individual moments of brilliance throughout the rest of the concert. Coudon brought a sense of operatic drama to the alto aria in Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem (Behold, we go up to Jerusalem); she also sang the tenor recitative with distinction. Blaisdell made every word count in the bass aria and recitative from Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, Your highest good).
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (I woeful man, I servant of sin) is an endurance test for a tenor, one that Reese faced admirably with little sign of strain. But more impressive than his vocal deployment was the narrative momentum he sustained throughout the cantata, from the anguish of transgression in the opening aria to the hope for redemption at its end.
Feels like Christmas
The evening’s musical MVP was Joshua Smith, principal flute of the Cleveland Orchestra, whom my friend pointed out appeared to be playing a wooden version of the modern instrument. His sound was rich yet nimble, particularly in the aria “Jesus nimmt die Sünder an” (Jesus takes sinners in), where he was practically a duet partner with the tenor. He and oboist Frank Rosenwein also set a rich tone together in Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt.
Walking out of the Church of the Holy Trinity into the crisp Philadelphia night after the concert, I was greeted by the gleaming lights of Rittenhouse Square. Restaurants and businesses were festooned with garlands and wreaths. Bach’s music still rang in my ears. It felt like Christmas.
What, When, Where
All Bach Cantata Program. Gamut Bach Ensemble, presented by Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. December 19, 2019, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 1904 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.
Church of the Holy Trinity is wheelchair-accessible by way of a ramp in the breezeway between the Rittenhouse Hotel and the church. When you arrive, please ask a PCMS staff member for assistance. For accessibility information about other PCMS venues, visit online.