by Michael Caruso

After nearly eight weeks out of circulation in the concert scene due to a broken right ankle, I was delighted that my first performance to review took place in Chestnut Hill. The Buxtehude Consort presented “German and Italian Cantatas of Mourning and Easter” Friday evening, April 1, in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Although the audience might have (and even should have) been larger, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm that greeted the ensemble of five vocalists and eight instrumentalists at the start of the first full weekend of spring.

The Buxtehude Consort was founded two seasons ago by baritone John Fowler. Joining him are soprano Molly Quinn, mezzo Jenifer Smith, countertenor Ian Howell and tenor Steve Bradshaw. Accompanying the singers Friday night were Daniel Elyar and Daniela Giulia Pierson on baroque violins; Donna Fournier, Heather Miller Lardin & Amy Domingues on baroque violas, Katie Rietman on violincello, Ken Payne on theorbo and Zach Hemenway at the portative organ. Hemenway is the organist & choir director at St. Paul’s Church, where the Buxtehude Consort is in residence.

Friday’s program opened with two works by the group’s namesake: “Fuerwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit” (Surely He hath borne our grief) and “Klag-Lied” (Must death then release). Johann Christoph Bach’s “Lamento” in its local premiere and Francesco Provenzale’s “Dialogo a cinque voci con violini per la Passion” in its American premiere rounded out the concert’s first half. After intermission, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” (The Sorrowing Mother) was sung and played.

Buxtehude lived from 1637 until 1707 and was one of the leading lights of the early northern German baroque style that culminated in the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. It is, therefore, almost impossible not to consider his music in light of Bach’s masterpieces and, subsequently, judge them inferior to the master’s canon — which, indeed, they are. Both his sacred choral music as well as his works for organ lack the compositional inspiration and structural cohesion that characterize those same kinds of works composed by Bach.

To be fair, though, one would have to admit the same set of limitations regarding the music of virtually every other composer of the baroque or any other era. Had George Frideric Handel not been a supreme master of opera, a field in which Bach never dabbled, it wouldn’t be possible to speak of Handel in the same sentence as Bach. Only Handel’s “Messiah” would survive the comparison in the genre of sacred choral music, with “The Water Music” and “Music for the Royal Fireworks” holding their own within their special niche.

Judged on their own, however, the two Buxtehude cantatas performed Friday evening in St. Paul’s Church are lovely works that project heartfelt renderings of their mournful texts. Individual words are sensitively painted in sound, both vocal and instrumental, and then molded into mellifluous motifs that flow both lyrically and dramatically. Buxtehude may not have had Handel’s ear for orchestration, but the instrumental accompaniments both support and enhance the beautifully shaped vocal lines. Howell and Bradshaw were particularly worthy of praise in the first of the Buxtehude cantatas while Quinn sang superbly in the second, her tone clear yet creamy, her dynamic range closely tied to the text and broadly communicative.

CLASSICAL MASTERS

This past weekend’s concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall brought the ensemble back to the very roots of the canon of classical masterpieces. Guest conductor Jun Markl led the Philadelphians in sterling renditions of Haydn’s “Symphony No. 44 in E minor; Trauersinfonie,” Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major” with soloist Marc-Andre Hamelin, and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 2 in D major.” The German-Japanese Markl, a native of Munich, elicited playing from the wisely reduced-in-number ensemble and his soloist, reassuring the audience  which packed the house that the old traditional forms still pack a powerful punch when performed with style and panache.

Haydn’s “Mourning” Symphony is one of the most nearly flawless examples of the composer’s complete mastery of the balance between formal classical structure and impassioned emotion. And Markl drew exquisite playing from all sections of the orchestra but most especially from the strings.

Although former Philadelphian and Temple U. alumnus Marc-Andre Hamelin isn’t well known for playing music from the classical repertoire — he’s acclaimed throughout the world as the supreme exponent of super-virtuosic romanticism — it was a welcome delight to hear him in Mozart’s jewel-like “Piano Concerto No. 17.” Hamelin’s tone defined textural clarity, and his phrasing epitomized elegant expression.

Markl brought the dazzling evening to a scintillating finale with a polished yet passionate reading of Beethoven’s Second Symphony.  All sections of the orchestra responded splendidly to Markl’s inspiring baton.