Cantatas in their proper place at St. Paul’s Lutheran

JS BACH – CANTATA VESPERS

Cantata BWV 47 “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden”

Rebecca Woodmore (soprano) / Jenny Potter (alto) / John Beaglehole (tenor) / Timothy Hurd (bass)

Richard Apperley (director)
Ensemble Abendmusik (leader: Martin Jaenecke)

St.Paul’s Lutheran Church,
King St., Mt.Cook, Wellington

Saturday 29th September, 2012

In presenting performances of JS Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original liturgical settings, Wellington’s St.Paul’s Lutheran Church is unique in New Zealand. The church is part of a network of world-wide Lutheran worship offering this same ministry, including the composer’s own St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

This practice was established at St.Paul’s in 2007 by Mark Whitfield,  President of the Lutheran Church in New Zealand, and Pastor at St.Paul’s in Wellington since 2001.  Prior to this he had taken up a scholarship to complete a Master of Sacred Music Degree at Luther Seminary and St.Olaf College, Minnesota, where he majored in organ (his skill on the instrument evident at various times during the service in which this cantata was presented).

Collaborating in this ongoing enterprise are well-known choral conductor and organ recitalist Richard Apperley, and a group of singers and instrumentalists who perform under the name of Ensemble Abendmusik – the group’s personnel varies from occasion to occasion, depending upon the performers’ availability and according to the requirements of each cantata. This is the second such performance I’ve attended, and the singers and some of the musicians were different on each occasion.

The church itself is smallish, and has a chamber organ, though its vaulted ceiling does give the sounds of the music some resonating-space.  The first time I attended one of these services the day outside was gloomy and grey, and something of the oppressive atmosphere seemed to colour the proceedings – however, my recent experience had a completely different ambience, everything warm and glowing  from the late afternoon sunbeams which had found their way inside the space, so that I felt a kind of sacramental ‘illuminating from within” this time round.

The service in each case “framed” the cantata performance, choral singing preceded by chorale preludes played on the organ, and liturgical prayers, responses and chanting, and followed by some preaching, readings from the Bible and prayer and singing. The congregation was asked not to “applaud” the music presentations during the course of the service, keeping the focus throughout on the overall service and its various acts of worship, of which the cantata performance was an integral part.

When it came to the cantata, following the Epistle and Gospel readings and a congregational “Magnificat” composed by a sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, the music seemed to flow from the performers as part of a continuum, rather than resemble something brought in for the occasion. The work was BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (Whoever exalts himself will be abased) – and its instrumental opening brought forth playing whose sweet tones and simple, direct focus seemed to draw both strength and beauty from its purpose as much as its intrinsic value. The quartet of soloists, though varying in strength and projection of voices, made the most of the opening fugal chorus, with only a slight uncertainty of attack at the harmonic lurch into the movement’s coda.

The soprano soloist, Rebecca Woodmore, I liked very much indeed – her aria featured strong, direct vocalizing, and graceful handling of the long lines. Martin Jaenecke’s solo violin obbligato supported her truly almost all the way, perhaps tiring a little during the reprise after the aria’s central, more agitated section, where the intonation was less consistent. During this vigorous middle section, the soprano caught the sense of anger and agitation in her singing, even if some of the figurations were blurred at speed – still, the energy and bite made a telling contrast with the aria’s outer sections.

Bass Timothy Hurd relished the juicy admonitions of his recitative text, with references to “Du, armer Wurm”, giving the delivery proper force and colour. His aria, Jesu, beuge douche mien Herz (Jesus, bow down my heart) was a bit more effortful, the voice having to be pushed through the lines, with breath occasionally an issue – though he managed to inflect the text tellingly in places, while keeping his tones true and focused. I wished we had heard a little more of the alto and tenor as well, but the work had no “solos” for either of them.

Instrumental lines (Jane Young’s ‘cello work a particular delight) nicely augmented the work of soloists and chorus, the final chorale a case in point, which here received a properly dignified rendition – one had a real sense of Bach’s work as music that contributed to a community’s expression of spiritual strength and determination. At the end of the service we were able to express our appreciation of the performers, which also included the auspices of the church and its ministers. The result of all of these people’s efforts seemed to me something eminently rich and worthwhile.

Review written by Peter Mechen, and published on Middle-C