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March 8, 2005

VocalEssence sings Bach with plenty of drama

Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN):

It has to be a very special occasion for VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle to cede the podium. So it was Saturday night at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, when renowned German conductor Helmuth Rilling led the 32-voice Ensemble Singers. Rilling is most known for his interpretations of J.S. Bach, and his program included two of Bach's sacred works as well as works by two German Romantics who were inspired by him.

Felix Mendelssohn was a disciple of Bach, initiating a revival of interest in the composer with his rediscovery of the "St. Matthew Passion." His choral works, like the Two Psalms from Op. 78, frequently paid homage. The Singers performed these uncharacteristically dark settings with a strong sense of dramatic effect.

Johannes Brahms was another passionate follower of Bach, as his Two Motets, Op. 74, ably demonstrated. Brahms managed to masterfully fuse a Baroque sensibility with a late-Romantic musical idiom. "O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf," a rousing series of choral variations, was sung with robust intensity and pristine clarity.

The four pieces were performed a cappella, showing off the Ensemble Singers to their best advantage, highlighting their exemplary technique and their admirable attempt at German diction. This small group produced a luxuriant sound, especially in the resonant acoustics of the Basilica.

The second half focused on the works of Bach himself. First up was the cantata for solo soprano, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!" BWV 51. Soprano Marlis Petersen handled Bach's ornate ornamentation with high style. But she was less successful at maintaining a smooth legato line in the more plaintive sections, not to mention sounding underpowered in the cavernous space. Her performance style ultimately left the impression that this was a coloratura showpiece rather than a work that had anything to do with the church. The strings of the pickup chamber orchestra that accompanied had some serious intonation problems. But for the most part, the ensemble played with clean articulation.

It was good to have the Ensemble Singers back for the motet "Jesu, meine Freude," BWV 227. They performed the music with tonal purity and technical mastery, while still conveying the profound faith that Bach wrote into every measure. It was here that Rilling's vast experience as a Bach interpreter (he has recorded the complete works on 172 CDs) was most evident and inspiring.

Posted by acapnews at March 8, 2005 12:11 AM