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Friday, March 8, 2013

Concert Review: The Bridge of a Hundred Years

The New York Philharmonic opens The Bach Variations.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bach man turned in overdrive: the conductor Masaaki Suzuki.
Image © BIS Classics/Naxos North American Distribution.
The New York Philharmonic is not the first ensemble one thinks of for the performance of sacred music by Johann Sebastian Bach. This month, the orchestra is working to correct that perception with The Bach Variations, a multi-disciplinary festival exploring multiple facets of that composer’s vast body of work.

For these first concerts, (seen Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall) the orchestra was joined by two vocal groups: the Tokyo-based Bach Collegium Japan and the Schola Cantorum from Yale University. All three groups performed under the leadership of Masaaki Suzuki,, a Japanese period performance specialist who is the music director of both choral groups. This was his first appearance with the Philharmonic. A quintet of vocal soloists including Indian soprano Sheherazade Panthaki, countertenor Iestyn Davies and tenor Nicholas Phan sang the leading parts as needed.

The concert opened with  Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, ("Sing unto the Lord a new song") the earliest of Bach’s four surviving motets. Although this piece is usually performed a cappella, Mr. Suzuki opted to accompany the elaborate setting of the text with a divided chamber-sized orchestra and small portative organ. Each group of musicians supported a different section of singers, creating a harmonious effect as the competing musical ideas intertwined in perfect counterpoint.

The motet was followed by the first Philharmonic performances of two choral works by Felix Mendelssohn, a composer who led the revival of interest in Bach's music in the early Romantic era with his performances of the long-forgotten St. Matthew Passion. In choosing to emphasize the connection between these two composers (who lived a century apart) Mr. Suzuki not only showed that he knew his musicology, but also the recent history of the Philharmonic. Under former music director Kurt Masur, the orchestra displayed a renewed passion for choral music, with Bach's large-scale choral works and the Mendelssohn oratorio Elijah receiving regular performances.

The first was setting of the Magnificat, glorifying the visitation of the Holy Spirit to the expectant Virgin Mary. This piece, which owes some of its inspiration to the young Mendelssohn’s careful study of Bach’s counterpoint and musical style was written whee. The composer was just 13. This work also introduced the strong corps of soloists, including Mr. Davies' sky-scraping countertenor and the sweet-toned, resonant voice of Mr. Phan. The young Mendelssohn's setting featured uplifting choruses and arias, culminating in a thrilling quadruple fugue.

The second piece was the unfinished Christus: the surviving fragments of a massive oratorio that occupied Mendelssohn in the last months of his life. Here, the composer used his command of orchestral and choral forces to chronicle the arrival of the three wise men and the birth if Jesus Christ. The second section, excerpted from the trial and passion of Jesus was markedly different in tone, with bold orchestral writing and a crucial part for Mr. Phan narrating the actions of Pontius Pilate.

All the vocal resources at Mr. Suzuki’s disposal were employed for the final work on the program, Bach’s Magnificat. Ms. Panthaki sang the first aria with fervent, moving tone. The work’s twelve compact movements alternated between movements for soloists with chamber accompaniment and the full-throated sound of chorus and orchestra. in the final setting of Sicut erat in principio, the opening theme was recapitulated bringing the composition and the concert in a satisfying full circle.

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