Songs of austerity bloom into splendor at Jordan Hall
On Friday, the Cantata Singers and Ensemble — coming into a pair of anniversaries, this season being David Hoose's 30th directing the group, next season the group's 50th overall — offered an ample but superbly performed program built around two of the repertoire that gave them their name, J. S. Bach's sacred cantatas. The concert also hinted at why the cantatas might have found Boston such an amenable second home in the first place: Both the music and the playing squared the circle of Puritan rectitude and musical pleasure. It was an evening of extravagant austerity.
Bach's "Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost" (BWV 114) opened with dark clouds — orchestral squalls and choral gusts — but the rest was hopefully lavish, equating earthly crisis with redemptive opportunity. Tenor William Hite navigated the valley of darkness with Jacqueline DeVoe's sinuous flute as a guide; alto Krista River regarded death in melodic turns serenely dancing between major and minor. Hoose conducted with a stately cadence punctuated by sweeping expression, giving harmonies or turns of phrase enough time to bloom into splendor.
The passage from life to afterlife was charted in Frank Martin's "Et la vie l'emporta," the Swiss composer's final opus, rendered with concentration and sharp style. The general language is, on the surface, severe, but baritone Mark-Andrew Cleveland (righteously suave) and alto Lynn Torgove (a wonderfully velvety dark sound) fortified their chant-like lines, while the chorus moved in luminous blocks, distilling richness from Martin's way with interpolated dissonance: hollow vaults of sparse counterpoint gilded with a chromatic glow.
That quality also permeated three Lenten motets by Jan Dismas Zelenka, anguish folded into large sheets of Baroque polyphony. Even through some audacious musical turns — Zelenka's setting of "Ecce, vidimus eum" was especially daring, with disorienting harmonic turns and a fugal subject creeping up in half-steps — the smoothness of the voice-leading never falters, a controlled elegance that the chorus matched.
In the second Bach cantata, "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" (BWV 3), the "narrow path" through the world's difficulties was paved with further grandeur. A tag-team recitative found the weakness of the flesh periodically buoyed by the cushion of the chorus's refrains, while, in Cleveland's aria, both indulgent musical sighing on "Höllenangst" ("hell's pain") and a protracted surplus of notes on "Freudenhimmel" ("heaven's joy") carried equal dramatic weight. In Bach's estimation and Hoose's hands, the prospect of absolution could make suffering and penance seem practically luxurious.