Cantate Chamber Singers start strong, end wobbly at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church

The intermission of Friday’s concert by the Cantate Chamber Singers at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church separated a first half of music by Benjamin Britten gloriously sung from a second-half Mozart Requiem that seemed unfocused and out of sorts.

It’s clear that conductor Gisele Becker has a special affinity for Britten’s music. In probably the best performance of this piece I’ve ever heard, she shaped his “Cantata Misericordium” into a dramatic and architecturally coherent structure that built to a climax of exultation, pacing the evolving events of the Good Samaritan story with the logic of inevitability. Her 32-voice chorus sang weightlessly in the role of observers and with intensity and ferocious grit when it entered the fray — always with alacrity and always with seemingly effortless accuracy. The soloists, baritone Steven Combs as the besieged traveler and tenor Robert Baker as the Samaritan, well-matched and consummately musical, gave vivid accounts of their roles.

For Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Baker and French hornist Laurel Ohlson collaborated on a reading that offered sensitively subtle explorations of the nighttime themes of its five poems. Ohlson managed a gorgeous spinning-out of both the Prologue and its offstage echo, the Epilogue, playing on a natural horn (without valves, with only her lips to change notes) and shaping the ends of phrases with a delicacy usually reserved for the human voice.

The Mozart was performed in an instrumentally beefed-up version that Britten wrote for a concert he conducted at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1971. Becker took very fast tempos that had both chorus and orchestra scrambling to keep up. Britten himself favored fast tempos, but a recording of the Aldeburgh performance reveals that even his tempos weren’t as fast as Becker’s, and it sounded as if the musicians in the small orchestra, strung out across almost the whole width of the church, couldn’t hear one another well enough to stay together.

Baker and Combs were joined in the solo quartet by Deborah Sternberg, a light, fragile-sounding but splendidly accurate soprano, and mezzo-soprano Carrie Lee Eyler, whose generous tone supported the ensemble well.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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