Leipzig Idol: Bach Collegium San Diego Reprises the Musical Competition Between J.S. Bach and His Rivals

For Sunday’s Bach Collegium San Diego virtual concert, Artistic Director Ruben Valenzuela provided an intriguing title: Bach and His Rivals: The Leipzig Auditions. There was nothing speculative about his choice of composers: Georg Philipp Telemann, Christoph Graupner, and J. S. Bach were the top three choices of the Leipzig city fathers in 1722 when they had to select the city’s new Kantor—music director—after the demise of Johann Kuhnau, who had held the august position for many years.

Ruben Valenzuela [photo (c) Gary Payne]

The term rivals certainly fits, because the first choice of the Leipzig authorities was Telemann, music director of the prosperous Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg; their second choice was Graupner, music director in Darmstadt. Bach was not a city music director but merely a court musician in the employ of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. When both Telemann and Graupner declined Leipzig’s offer—their current employers hastily raised their salaries to keep them—Leipzig settled for J. S. Bach.

In the words of one of the prominent Leipzig officials, “We could not get the best men, so we made do with mediocre.” Critics beware: history may prove your most confident judgements risible.

Valenzuela opened this program with Telemann’s Du aber, Daniel, gehe hin, a stirring choral cantata whose message promises the reward of heaven to those who struggle courageously like the Hebrew prophet Daniel. Du, aber Daniel begins with a mellifluous instrumental sinfonia that sounded positively sumptuous in the Sala of the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. This modest sized but high-ceilinged room with only hard, reflective surfaces (unlike most American churches, not a thread of sound-absorbing carpet in sight) allowed the sound of this period instrument ensemble to bloom radiantly.

Conducting from the collegium’s chamber organ, Valenzuela drew sleek, articulate phrasing from his instrumentalists and singers, who provided a robust ensemble even though they were one singer to a part. Telemann structures the grand opening chorus in the style of a French Overture, a stately opening section followed by a spirited fugue. A series of arias and recitatives unfolds the theological argument to the congregation—I liked the image of heaven as the place where “Jesus walks on roses.” Bass John Buffett accomplished most of the heavy lifting in this portion of the cantata, his dramatic flair and beautifully inflected German as well as the rich baritonal hue of his voice never failed to enthrall the listener.

Jennifer Ellis Kampani’s bright, clear soprano complemented Buffett well, mirroring his insightful interpretation with her splendid single recitative and aria. At least in this cantata, Telemann’s vocal style struck me as more succinct, less melismatic than J. B. Bach’s typical vocal approach, although Telemann certainly endowed his instrumentalists with complex figurations. In that category I commend oboist Lot Demeyer for a consistently eloquent interpretation of her prominent role in the cantata.

The text and mood of Telemann’s final chorus, “Sleep well, blessed bones” brought to mind the closing chorus of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion, although Telemann’s movement proved less extensive than that memorable finale. Perhaps what impressed the Leipzig city fathers at the 1722 audition was Telemann’s simple but elegant style, music that would move and persuade the congregation with dramatic immediacy.

To represent Leipzig’s second choice, Valenzuela presented Graupner’s Reiner Geist, lass doch mein Herz, an effulgent solo cantata for the festival of Pentecost written for soprano and instrumental ensemble. Gracefully navigating its string of arias and recitatives, Kampani gave flight to the composer’s soaring, beautifully shaped vocal lines and ardent declamation. Compared to Telemann’s style in the opening cantata, Graupner expressed his text with greater sensitivity and freedom, even a touch of operatic flair. For example, when the soprano sings of the Spirit, “I shall be able to blithely embrace you and never again let you out of my soul,” the line leaps above the staff with a cadenza-like flourish.

Such operatic qualities come as no surprise, since after his studies at the university in Leipzig, Graupner served as harpsichordist in the Hamburg Opera orchestra, which was at that time directed by Reinhard Keiser, the most successful German opera composer of his day. Under Keiser’s tutelage, Graupner composed several operas while in Hamburg. Oh, and there was another aspiring musician with Graupner in that Hamburg Opera pit: a violinist by the name of George Frideric Handel.

For this cantata on the Bach Collegium program, Associate Music Director Michael Sponseller played the chamber organ and Valenzuela doubled on harpsichord, underscoring Graupner’s richly textured instrumental ensemble of strings, oboe and recorder. In the opening aria, for example, I was impressed with the way he wove arabesques by the oboe and first violin around the soprano’s long, floating line. Although placing a solo cantata next to one written for choir and soloists is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, Graupner’s mastery of the idiom was evident, and I would have cast a vote for him over Telemann based on the excellence of his vocal writing.

The Bach Collegium presented J. S. Bach’s Cantata No. 93 “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten,” a masterful choral cantata based on a sturdy 17th-century chorale by Georg Neumark, as evidence for Bach’s status as premier German composer of his day. Opening with a robust chorus based on athletic variations of Neumark’s chorale theme, Bach presents a driving, formidable tapestry in which the instrumental and vocal lines interlace with unrelenting ingenuity. When the text of a recitative mentions lightening and thunder, a mighty, jagged bass line threatens to dislodge the excited tenor line, yet John Russell sailed through it with confidence and his reliable honeyed timbre.

A sprightly duet for soprano and alto, executed with great finesse by Kampani and mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, also used the chorale theme to create suave counterpoint for both voices and instruments. Bach must have liked this movement, because in 1746 he arranged the duet for organ solo in a handsomely published collection we now call the Schübler Chorales. After the duet and arias detail the wisdom in trusting in divine strength rather than human frailty, Bach concludes the cantata with a straightforward but strong presentation of the chorale’s final stanza.

Selecting Bach’s Cantata No. 93 as the entry in this concert that invokes the 1722 Leipzig audition does stack the deck in Bach’s favor, since according to The New Grove Encyclopedia, Bach did not compose Cantata No. 93 until 1724, the year in which he began to cultivate this style of chorale-based sacred cantata. But this cantata clearly demonstrates Bach’s command of the Lutheran cantata, which was a cornerstone of the worship tradition in churches of the Augsburg Confession during the 18th century.

In this astonishing program, directors Valenzuela and Sponseller, in concert with the Bach Collegium musicians, crafted a compelling glimpse of  musical and liturgical practice in this era, following the best current historical research available. Even for listeners with little concern for history or performance practice, the concert was a musical feast of the first rank. I do wonder, however, what those 1722 Leipzig city fathers would have though had they been in attendance at the Mission Basilica.

This program was recorded in April 2021 at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá and streamed on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

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