Montreal’s Ensemble Les Boréades performs at this year's Vancouver Bach Festival. Photo by Hugo B Lefort.
Montreal’s Ensemble Les Boréades performs at this year's Vancouver Bach Festival. Photo by Hugo B Lefort.

The first week of Early Music Vancouver’s 2019 Bach Festival drew to a close at Christchurch Cathedral with three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 200+ sacred cantatas. The venue could not have been more appropriate as the texts of Cantatas 161, 12 and 39 provided a worthy sermon, enhanced to perfection by the music.

Bach put that music to Salomon Franck’s poetry in the first two cantatas in 1716, when he was 31. The words focus on death. In the opening of BWV 161, death is actually invited with an image of the human spirit lapping honey from a lion’s mouth.

The BWV 12 opening coro, sung by the four vocalists and accompanied evocatively by Matthew Jennejohn on oboe, weeps, laments, worries and despairs in the anguish and trouble that are “the Christian’s bread of tears.”  Who knew that our commonly used ‘angst’ translates from the German as ‘anguish’? As they sang, the facial contortions of the singers were reminiscent of gargoyles warding off evil spirits from the exterior walls of ancient European churches. Their heartfelt angst was powerfully moving and beautiful in all its sadness.

Baroque ensemble Les Boréades de Montréal provided the instrumentation, in tight but mellifluous harmonies with soprano Dorothee Mields, alto Alex Potter, tenor Samuel Boden and bass-baritone Matthew Brook.

Les Boréades de Montréal opened the festival at the beginning of the week, playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and their return was heralded with well-deserved enthusiasm. The ensemble’s first violinist Olivier Brault commanded the stage in his black jabot and vest, his hair neatly swept back in a bow, as he hosted the concert with panache commensurate with his and his fellow musicians’ elegant playing.

Potter, Mields and Brook all embraced the music with voices that blended like an eddying stream, allowing each other to rise and take focus at each appropriate moment. Sadly, Boden left one aware of his technical skill but wanting as far as his emotional commitment was concerned. While the other three approached the music with their entire beings, Boden was stiff and his eyes rarely left the page to involve the audience. It meant we were unable to feed him in return with our shared love of the music. As a result his performance lacked lustre.

Not so, Mr Potter. Never once did we witness the moistening of lips or intake of breath. His presence in the music was absolute. The same was the case with Mields whose clear voice glided through the exact middle of each note and on to the next. And Brook’s rich bass-baritone was tinged with humanity and humour.

However, when all four sang together, although Boden failed to soar when opportunities arose, he did hold his own and never let the side down.

The second half of the programme opened with Mark Edwards’s animated harpsichord interpretation of J. S. Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Concerto in D major F.41. Unfortunately, the strings and basso continuo that accompanied Edwards drowned him almost completely. Faint tinkling strains from his handsome instrument crept through on occasion but for the most part he might just as well have been miming.

Perhaps if the harpsichord had been set further downstage, with the strings placed back in the church nave and if the continuo basso was muted, the performance would have been better balanced. As it was, both composer and soloist deserved a louder voice.

Finally, BWV 39, Brich dem hungrigen dein Brot which translates, thanks to the well-written informative programme notes, as Break your bread for the hungry, featured the entire ensemble. The singers’ voices danced through the opening coro. It was splendid. This cantata, written when Bach was more mature, is filled with hope, goodwill, abundance and praise. It paves the way to the lesson and final choral: Blessed are those who, out of mercy, take on themselves others’ need; are compassionate with the poor; helpful with counsel, and, where possible, with deed. They will receive help in return and obtain mercy.

Thus endeth the lesson and an evening of music as close to heavenly as any sinner could wish.  

Early Music Vancouver’s 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival continues through August 9. Visit earlymusic.bc.ca for tickets and information.

Editor’s Note (26 Aug 2019): This review was edited to reflect it was Olivier Brault who led the performance and not Francis Colpron as originally reported. We regret the error.