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On a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon, music lovers packed into the intimate Chapel of the Cross to hear one familiar Bach and, well, a less familiar one. But even those unfamiliar with the music of Philipp Heinrich Erlebach could find plenty to enjoy in Baroque and Beyond's "Bach and Erlebach" program.
The concert opened with its only two J.S. Bach pieces, which felt a bit like serving filet mignon as an appetizer. But filet mignon it was. Within a few measures of the very first piece, Bach's Sonata in G, S.1021, it was clear that the three instrumentalists – Dana Maiben, baroque violin, Brent Wissick, viola da gamba. and Beverly Biggs, harpsichord – are seasoned Bach veterans. They stressed downbeats and then decayed, leaned into passing dissonances, and kept a buoyant, stately tempo throughout. Maiben, in particular, played expressively and gracefully without indulging in exaggerated facial gestures or ostentatious body swaying.
For the second Bach piece, soprano Florence Peacock joined in. This aria, "Angenehmer Zephyrus" from Bach's secular cantata No. 205, is both delightful and devilishly difficult. Peacock's voice may not sound as fresh as it did at the height of her career, but she sang the aria with intelligence and passion. Occasionally she and the instrumental ensemble lost their rhythmic traction, but each time they regained it and moved right along.
After the Bach, it was Wissick's turn to shine. Although in baroque music the viola da gamba tends to accompany as continuo rather than solo, Wissick showed the audience what the instrument can do at the height of its powers. In the Sonata No. 10 from the obscure viola da gambist August Kuhnel, Wissick negotiated a range of tricky melismas with seeming ease. In the more lyrical sections, he produced some of the sweetest playing I have heard on this sometimes rather scratchy instrument.
With Maiben then rejoining Wissick and Biggs, the first half closed with the Trio Sonata No. 3 in A from the similarly obscure Erlebach. Biggs mentioned to the audience that the whole concert had been conceived around this Erlebach piece, and it was easy to see why. With two adagios framing the overall movement, the piece has a reflective, entrancing quality that could lull the listener into gentle sleep if not careful. Erlebach's harmonizations are lush, though with Bach already in the ear, they did sound a tad domestic.
The entire second half of the concert consisted of works from Dietrich Buxtehude, a more familiar Baroque name and massive influence on Bach (who, as a young man, once walked over two hundred miles on foot to hear Buxtehude play the organ). Peacock rejoined the group for the first piece, the cantata BuxWV 98, Singet dem Herrn, from Psalm 98. Here things didn't flow quite as smoothly as they did in the first half. It took Peacock some time to regain her vocal strength after intermission and, in a couple of places, lost touch with the instrumental ensemble rhythmically. But she did not allow those hiccups to deter her; the final movement was a joyful exclamation of this wonderful music.
The final work, Buxtehude's Trio Sonata in B-flat, Op. 1, No. 4, BuxWV 255, capped off the concert fittingly. If the first half ended with a work framed by two adagios, the second half did just the opposite with two vivaces. These brisk tempos sent concertgoers back out into the sun, pleasantly full from enjoying such a sumptuous harmonic feast.