A newly established Easter festival at the Melbourne Recital Centre has given lovers of Bach’s greatest works a fine choice of concerts on Good Friday and Easter Saturday. To assemble teams of choirs, instrumentalists, soloists, venue staff and audiences at this significant religious/holiday period is a huge undertaking, so we must congratulate artistic director Rick Prakhoff and the Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra for this “Easter feast of music”. Bach’s St Matthew Passion may have been seen as the largest and most dramatic event to attract audiences to these concert performances on Good Friday, as a smaller but eager and supportive audience welcomed the final concert of Bach’s very special but less monumental works: Orchestral Suite No 3 in D and Cantata BWV 66, and Mozart’s very beautiful and popular Vespers. In his welcoming address conductor Rick Prakhoff commended all participants in the three concerts of the festival, but had to inform the audience of COVID issues causing an unexpected loss of a small number choristers from this evening’s performance with the Bach Chamber Choir.
But it was a strong and affirmative Overture that quickly established an honest interpretation of the developing forms of instrumental music in the early 18th century. Timpani and three trumpets reinforced stately and dignified opening dotted rhythms, with two oboes, strings and harpsichord adding an impressive sound through the more brilliant faster fugal development. Orchestral Leader, violinist Madeleine Easton, followed the tradition of standing for her extensive solos, still communicating well in her leadership role with the ensemble, as her precise Baroque lines wove continuously warm lines, but she was over-shadowed at times by a robust string section and bright, persuasive trumpets. The contrasting movement, Air (on the G String), moved quite freely with a refreshing forward tempo, although again some essential violin solo phrases were over-shadowed by the stronger ensemble. In Gavotte we heard some fine unison playing, and a charming realisation of the French dance elements with strong pulses and rhythmic thrust from cello, bass and timpani. Bourree and Gigue gave us secure and boisterous music to dance our cares away, with colour and joy coming from alternating and imitative ensemble sections.
Cantata BWV 66, Erfreut euch ihr Herzen (Rejoice, ye hearts) is a work in six sections where Bach gives us one of his longest and most exuberant opening Chorus sections preceding alternating tenor, alto and bass recitatives leading to a strong closing Chorale hymn. Mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan, tenor Timothy Reynolds and baritone Christopher Tonkin produced well-enunciated text and expression, the male voices having the advantage of Bach writing the majority of the text where strong proclamations were required, although some natural performance nervousness affected a few details in balance and ensemble. In No 4 Recitative and Arioso for tenor (representing Hope) and alto (Fear) Bach shows similar writing and less “word-painting” than in his dramatic liturgical works, so it was in No 5 Aria (Duet) for Alto and Tenor, (sometimes performed with two male voices) that Shakira Dugan could soar with increased dramatic projection above Reynolds’s stronger lines. In every work, continuo musicians Roseanne Hunt (cello), and Chad Kelly (harpsichord and chapel organ) played an outstanding role. This small ensemble was beautifully balanced, delightfully expressive and hopeful in spirit, despite the seriousness of the text: “I do not fear the grave’s darkness”. Most impressive and striking in orchestral and choral punctuation, was the closing short verse Chorale, with the Bach Chamber Choir’s precise and emphatic delivery of the short texts “Alleluja” and “Lord, have mercy”.
Mozart’s Solemn Vespers K339 was the featured second part of this Easter feast. Three fine trombones and a bassoon added to the significantly contrasting symphonic textures and majestic choral writing in Mozart’s settings of five psalms and closing Magnificat. Soprano Lorina Gore joined our three soloists, unusually spread widely across front of stage, two on each side of the conductor. With the increasing use of iPads/tablets in performances, it is a distraction if a soloist is using a different score. Should a tablet have technical problems, which was the case tonight, there will be ensemble uncertainty.
Tenor Timothy Reynolds must be highly commended for his outstanding delivery of tone, expression, diction and resonant beauty in all solo work, while Lorina Gore exuded smiles, warmth and delight with having the prized moment to perform the Laudate Dominum. This was the glorious moment we had anticipated, Mozart’s lyrical and heart-felt masterpiece, with Gore delivering a colorful and crystal clear performance. In a church setting the more resonant acoustic usually requires a majestic and more sedate tempo, but Prakhoff steered the ensemble forward with a lighter flowing pace, perhaps lessening the mystery, reverential awe and deeply spiritual connection of this sublime work.
With the Bach Orchestra providing splendid accompaniment to the choristers, who had clearly worked tirelessly through two days of demanding choral performance, it was understandable that chorus members, particularly sopranos were a little diminished in their power and shine, but certainly every voice rose in confidence for each dynamic “Amen”.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Mozart Vespers, Bach Treasures”, presented by the Melbourne Bach Choir at the Melbourne recital centre on April 16, 2022.