Bach Festival’s start: A Collegium triumph heard by few

by David Patrick Sterns

Inquirer Music Critic


The Bach Festival of Philadelphia is full of smart, fresh ideas on revealing the infinitely numerous faces of that ceaselessly interesting Johann Sebastian, from premiering new works based on Bach chorales to inviting guests who create special occasions, such as the New York Collegium under the authoritative Andrew Parrott.

Then there’s that nasty old expression about best-laid plans: Friday’s festival opening at the Church of the Holy Trinity had, under logistically trying conditions, an artistic triumph that few heard. The New York Collegium’s program of three cantatas from Bach’s first year in Leipzig (Nos. 22, 23, and the expansive 75) was as fine as one could hope for, even in the great early music festivals of Europe. Some 100 listeners showed up – in travel conditions that forced some players to drive six hours – in what turned out to be Collegium’s last concert before a money-dictated hiatus. Nobody knows when it will play again.

Painfully amateurish groups such as Vox Ama Deus go on forever here, but New York doesn’t maintain its Collegium, which had a sober 1998 start under Gustav Leonhardt but now, under Parrott, understands its repertoire so thoroughly that even out-of-sorts moments (however few) were transcended by knowledge of the music’s message and manner of expression.

That’s the greatest barrier between Bach’s great but neglected cantatas and a 21st-century public. Composed for Sunday church, the cantatas can be intimidating with severe texts laden with condemning judgments, set to music with a kind of reckless spontaneity not often found elsewhere in Bach. Melodies spun out at tour-de-force lengths and hymns superimposed, with breathtaking logic, over orchestral writing as animated as the Brandenburg Concertos. Such things can only be truly externalized by those who have spent their lives immersed in the idiom – like Parrott.

Collegium’s chorus had just four singers who revealed the rigorous counterpoint with gratifying clarity, avoiding the potentially suffocating weight of a larger group. Soloists include an ideal Bach alto in the focused, full-bodied voice of Kirsten Sollek. But even less-distinguished tenor Marc Molomot and bass Curtis Streetman never detracted from the performance’s overall refinement. Musical intent was clear when the notes weren’t.

Parrott unsuccessfully avoided clumsiness in the tricky opening of Cantata 75; better that than steamrolling the meaning out of such passages – as others do. Smaller luxuries included recitatives supported by vibrato-less strings creating a distinctive blanket of sound thanks to being perfectly in tune. The world needs this group. Let us pray.