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Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music

Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works

General Discussions

A new Cantatas release

Riccardo Nughes
wrote (April 10, 2002):
http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=4909

Aryeh Oron wrote (April 10, 2002):
[To Riccardo Nughes] This CD is not exactly new. It was released at least 3 months ago. See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Rec/Rec-2002.htm

I prepared a sepecial page in the Bach Cantatas Website for the recordings of Bach's vocal works by Craig Smith and Emmanuel Music.
See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/SmithCraig.htm

I believe that they plan to record the complete Bach Cantatas. Following Koopman's last affair with Warner, I wish them success with this gigantic enterprise. If they succeed this will be the first American Bach cantata cycle. I have had hopes the Jeffrey Thomas & ABS will take the challenge upon themselves, but they stopped after 6 CD's. Furthermore, both groups (although their style is quite different) record for the same label (Koch International), and it seems very unlikely that both will continue recording cantatas with full force.

Regarding the recordings, I very much concur with the reviewer. There is more vigour and boldness to these recordings than we have learnt to expect from the likes of Koopman and Herreweghe. Not all the soloists are first rate, but there is commitment from all the participants which is very much to my liking.


Sunday Near the Park with Bach

Steve Schwartz wrote (October 5, 2005):
At the end of an interesting month, to say the least, I find myself in Cambridge, Mass. Last Sunday, a friend asked if I'd like to hear a Bach cantata at Emmanuel Church in Boston, something the church apparently does every week, usually under the direction of Craig Smith (I misheard this initially as Gregg Smith), who had worked with Peter Sellars in that director's Mozart opera series. The cantata in question, number BWV 180 "Schmuecke dich, o liebe Seele," happens to be one of my favorites. So we took the T train to the Park station and walked through the Boston Public Gardens to Emmanuel.

Having sung in a lot of church choirs in my life, including some very good ones, I wondered how good such a performance could be. Bach's cantatas take some effort, usually more than one weekly rehearsal can contain. I kept my thoughts to myself, however.

We arrived, found an empty pew with lots of leg room, and looked through the order of worship. In addition to the Bach cantata, the service contained two motets by John Harbison (also on Emmanuel's music board), a Schuetz motet, two Bach organ preludes, and one by Buxtehude. A choir would be good and lucky to get through one of these things after a week's work. My misgivings grew. However, I had to admit the music cannily chosen. The service opened with Bach's organ prelude on the chorale tune "Schmuecke dich, o liebe Seele" ("adorn yourself, o beloved soul"), a late, meditative work filled with complex, but not tortured chromaticism. The organist, Nancy Granert, not only chose beautifully clear textures, she played the piece with great musical understanding. So often under the fingers of middlng performers, the rhetorical thread of Bach's keyboard works disappears, particularly true of the longer ones. At least I had the organ pieces to look forward to. The chorale itself appeared in the service as a congregational hymn. So we were well prepared for the cantata.

The choir came in with Harbison's "Concerning Them Which are Asleep," an daring score of dense counterpoint and medium dissonance. I had known only Harbison's instrumental music previously. Certainly nobody in New Orleans had done anything with the choral works. Almost every director there had given up presenting contemporary music, on the grounds that "since nobody liked that stuff anyway," they shouldn't spend the effort. Church choirs usually dealt in less troublesome stuff, from the abominable "praise music" to easier anthems. Harbison makes no concession to practicality. This motet, in its ambition at least, occupies a major place in his catalogue. On the basis of this work alone, I regard him as one of the great modern choral writers.

The choir blew me away. It handled the score's difficulties as if they simply didn't exist. The music, at low dynamic and thickly packed, separated into cogent lines and dramatic argument. Intonation was superb, the tone light, clear, and of a piece. No one just planted both feet and wailed. No one singer stuck out, not even soloists. Every part knew when to come forward in the texture and when to step back. Indeed, I've heard choral CDs that didn't come up to Emmanuel's technical level live. The choir didn't present modern music, but music. Emmanuel's singing drove home to me hat, despite their advantages, recordings just don't move you like a great live performance. There's always some veil between you and the immediate, full power of the music if you and the players aren't in the same room.

The chorus came in next with the second Harbison motet, "The Communion Words" (I Corinthians 11:23-25), lighter and brighter than the first but again written without compromise. In spots it reminded me of Kodaly's choral music -- not a bad thing. If Harbison has written more choral music, I definitely want to hear it.

Eventually we got to the cantata (the service, one of the longer ones I've attended, ran to two hours). Smith led a full complement of choir, soloists, and instrumentalists, including piccolo violoncello and oboe da caccia. How much money this must cost the church, I have no idea, but it can't be cheap. The cantata celebrates the soul's union with God, God's mercy, and the presence of God's love through the communion sacrament. Bach lays the cantata out along typical lines: an elaborate choral opening, various solos, and a chorale setting at the end. In the first movement, the chorus dances around the "Schmuecke dich" chorale tune. All the virtues shown by Smith and the choir in the Harbison stayed with the Bach. The tenor soloist, Frank Kelley, sang of the soul's ravishment by Christ in speedy runs that went on forever. Kelley has a light voice -- he won't be singing Siegfried any time soon -- but it's flexible. He wins you over not so much by his sound (good enough) as by his intelligence and technique. At one point, he reserved his climax for the end of the phrase, normally the part where singers pray for the air simply to finish. Soprano Jayne West, whom some may remember from the televised production of the Sellars Marriage of Figaro set in Trump Tower, entered with a recitative and a simple statement of the choral, supported by (for Bach) simple counterpoint. She had a more florid aria later on, "Lebens Sonne, Licht der Sinnen" ("Sun of life, light of the senses), in which the quick chains of runs represent the sparkle of light. I've heard maybe two better Mozart sopranos, including a New Orleans native who had Mozart in her DNA, but West is one smart and musical singer, with a tone like a sweetwater brook.

The alto and the bass soloists had the most thankless parts -- recitatives. The bass solo is over in a twinkling. The alto solo may be the single most difficult thing in the cantata, with harmonic ambiguities from Neptune and beyond -- hard as sin to keep in tune -- as Bach portrays the soul hobetween fear and joy while it contemplates its worthiness for salvation. Krista River carried it off superbly.

The band played as well as many a named and feted group. Mary Ruth Ray, violist of the Lydian String Quartet, did a wonderful obbligato to the second soprano solo, while flutist Christopher Krueger skipped nimbly in concert with tenor Kelley. The continuo group fried my socks, with tremendous gamba and keyboard playing.

The bottom line is Emmanuel does this sort of thing every week. The more I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes.

Maybe Boston really is the hub of the universe.

James Tobin wrote (October 6, 2005):
Steve Schwartz wrote:
< Last Sunday, a friend asked if I'd like to hear a Bach cantata at Emmanuel Church in Boston, something the church apparently does every week, usually under the direction of Craig Smith ... service contained two motets by John Harbison (also on Emmanuel's music board) >
This has been going on, with Smith and Harbison included, for decades.I heard the premiere of Harbison's Violin Concerto there about twentyyears ago, with Harbison's wife the soloist in a version, if I am notmistaken, significantly different from the one eventually recorded.

< The choir blew me away. It handled the score's difficulties as if they simply didn't exist. The music, at low dynamic and thickly packed, separated into cogent lines and dramatic argument. Intonation was superb, the tone light, clear, and of a piece. No one just planted both feet and wailed. No one singer stuck out, not even soloists. Every part knew when to come forward in the texture and when to step back. Indeed, I've heard choral CDs that didn't come up to Emmanuel's technical level live....The bottom line is Emmanuel does this sort of thing every week. The more I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes. >
I don't have any recent information, so I don't know this for sure, but I assume those same singers have been going at this together so long that they sing together as a long-standing string quartet plays.

< Maybe Boston really is the hub of the universe. >
You should stick around there a while. There are tons of music of all sorts and it will not cost you a fortune.


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Last update: żOctober 12, 2005 ż12:34:28