January 05, 2023


Bach: Cantatas BWV 51 and 202; St. John Passion—two arias. Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Apollo’s Fire conducted by Jeannette Sorrell. AVIE. $17.99.

Carols after a Plague. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     One reason Bach’s music seems both eternal and eternally new is the way he handles the human voice. Whether celebratory or anguished, secular or sacred, Bach’s vocal works evince so sure a grasp of the voice’s expressive possibilities that they are endlessly listenable – and tempting for performers of all types to interpret in a wide variety of ways, one of which is to create intriguing combinations of the music both to provide enjoyment and to provoke thought. That is the approach of Amanda Forsythe and the Cleveland-based Baroque ensemble known as Apollo’s Fire on a new AVIE recording. The inherently celebratory nature of the two chosen cantatas makes their pairing a sensible one even though BWV 51 is sacred (Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, “Praise God in All Lands”), while BWV 202 is the secular “wedding” cantata (Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, “Depart from Here, Shadows of Sorrow”). Certainly one reason for choosing this pairing is the opportunity it gives Forsythe to hold forth with a soprano voice of fine control and shading – and considerable virtuosity. But what makes this CD a pleasure is that she does not overdo the vocal gymnastics: just as Jeannette Sorrell leads the period-instrument ensemble with close attention to Baroque stylistic practices, so Forsythe handles the vocal lines with pomp and pleasure, but does not turn them into coloratura showpieces or make the performance all about her. In fact, one key to Bach’s continued attractiveness to performers and audiences alike is that his music is never primarily about the forces performing it: he said that he wrote everything for the greater glory of God, and even in our far more secular age, it is easy to subsume one’s own ego (whether performing or listening) into the composer’s sound world and its emotional underpinnings, including the foundational spirituality. Thus, in BWV 51, the bright and bold first aria does not overshadow the quieter and more inward-looking second, Höchster, mache deine Güte. And in BWV 202, the tender opening aria contrasts very effectively with the brighter ones that follow, especially the exhortation to “practice loving” (Sich üben im Lieben). Forsythe and Sorrell work very well together, giving the entire CD the feeling of a genuinely cooperative endeavor. But the inclusion of two arias from the St. John Passion, it must be said, is a bit odd: using one to separate the cantatas and the other to conclude the disc makes sense in terms of the overall production and helps to turn the CD into one of a reasonable length, although at 50 minutes it certainly remains on the short side. Yet the St. John Passion arias do not quite fit thematically with either of the cantatas, except in a very general sense, and do seem chosen more to highlight Forsythe’s artistry than to expand in any meaningful way on the musical landscape. However, the beauty of the arias comes through so clearly that it is a pleasure not to overthink their inclusion. Zerfliesse, mein Herze (“Melt Away, My Heart”) is indeed meltingly lovely, and Ich folge dir gleichfalls (“I Follow You, Too”) makes for a sweetly pastoral conclusion to a CD with many beautiful moments throughout.

     A (+++) New Focus Recordings release uses the human voice with considerable skill as well, but for very, very different purposes, and ones that are far more time-bound than is anything in Bach. Carols after a Plague is a collection of 14 vocal works by 12 composers, all separated by titled interludes by composer/conductor Donald Nally, with everything – all 84 minutes of the disc – focused on the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a pretty dour prospect, and the “carols” element – made obvious from the very first brass call at the start of Nally’s Prelude: Adam, which opens the production – borders on the grotesque. The single-word titles of Nally’s contributions connect to the “plague” at best peripherally: Dancing, Beauty, Here, Silent, Fa/La, Power, and so forth. Titles of the other composers’ works are more directly evocative of this specific moment in time: Requiem for a Plague, Colouring-In Book, Alone Together, Still So Much to Say, etc. There are three works here by Shara Nova and one apiece from Tyshawn Sorey, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C. Phillips Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leach, Alex Berko, and Viet Cuong. The members of the Philadelphia-based chamber choir known as The Crossing sing everything with intensity bordering on fervor, and there is no denying the underlying emotion of the material and the composers who created it. The creators’ differing styles, which include everything from clearly spoken/sung declamatory material to vocalises to well-nigh indecipherable verbiage, lend the whole project more auditory variety than might be expected from material with so singular and intense a focus. Still, the focus is very specific, and while there is clearly an overarching attempt here to reflect the shared experience of a horrific time in the lives of performers and listeners alike, it is difficult to hear or experience so many works that incessantly harp on the same topic, no matter how different their methods of doing so may be. There are occasional islands of calm and almost spirituality here (Phillips’ The Undisappeared, Lann’s Shining Still, Berko’s Exodus). There are also plenty of dissonances and verbal/musical reflections of uncertainty, fear and even anger (some directed at non-pandemic events that occurred during the same time period). The concluding piece, Nova’s Resolve, is intended to point toward a better future – it is the sole entry in what is designated as Part III of this offering. However, there is no real sense of uplift in it or, really, in any of these works: they are mostly about just getting by, doing as well as possible, and trying (or hoping) to do better in the future. An there is nothing wrong with any of that. But really, making the best of things and trying to make them better is a notion for all times, from Bach’s and before to our own, and is not confined to the years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Carols after a Plague is self-limited by design – and those self-imposed limitations undermine what could have been a universality of feeling connecting people today with those who came before and will come after. That is admittedly extremely difficult for music to do, though – which is why Bach’s success at a kind of longitudinal temporal connectedness is all the more remarkable.

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