Tuesday evening’s Westminster Choir event at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church left no doubt that the nation’s finest college choir can indeed deliver an entire program of Baroque-era music in fairly authentic period sound and style. Under choirmaster Andrew Megill’s deft direction, the choir — plus a small ensemble of Spoleto Festival Orchestra musicians (and a special guest vocal soloist) — delivered two prime cantatas by J. S. Bach, plus excerpts from Dietrich Buxtehude’s greatest choral masterpiece.
The opening work was Bach’s Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My Heart Swims in Blood), BWV 199, an early solo cantata (maybe the first he wrote) for soprano and instruments. Doing the solo honors was Spoleto sweetheart Courtenay Budd, a precious fixture in Dr. Wadsworth’s chamber series.
She sang beautifully throughout, preceding her three lovely arias and solo chorale with emphatic and spiritually potent recitatives. Exquisite oboe and viola obbligatos respectively graced one of her most enchanting arias and the chorale.
Enter members of the Westminster Choir, for sterling performances of three of the seven cantatas comprising Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri (Our Lord Jesus’s Body). It sets Latin texts drawn mostly from a sacred medieval poem that approaches the biblical story of Christ’s final suffering via allusions to the various wounded parts of his body. We heard cantatas two through four of the set: “Ad Genua” (To His Knees), “Ad Manus” (To His Hands) and “Ad Latus” (to his side).
These three cantatas are formatted pretty much the same, each with an instrumental/choral introduction followed by solo or small ensemble passages and a final reprise of the choral opening. Quite a few of the choir’s members got to shine in the solo and ensemble passages, revealing the profusion of first-rate voices that belong to this world-class choir.
The final work was Bach’s very early Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the bonds of death), his most often-performed cantata. Some directors assign several of the work’s seven movements to soloists or a duo, but most of them were delivered chorally here. And the choir sounded wonderful. But there was one tricky soprano/tenor duet towards the piece’s end (for which Ms. Budd returned) that didn’t go well. Budd apparently jumped the beat around halfway through, throwing her hapless partner off — and things never got back on track.
The only other flaw was that the continuo cellist sounded a bit off here and there. Aside from those problems, players (despite their modern instruments) and singers alike produced real musical magic with glowing, historically-informed style and sound. A couple of glitches aren’t enough to derail an otherwise superb performance.