Bach Sinfonia re-creates 1723 auditions for post of Liepzig’s cantor

Georg Friedrich Kauffmann edged out Johann Sebastian Bach on Saturday night.

This, at least, was the verdict of the audience at the Bach Sinfonia’s re-creation of the 1723 auditions for the post of Leipzig’s cantor. The Sinfonia let Bach go head to head for the job with a couple of his rivals, Christoph Graupner and Kauffmann. The audience voted on electronic devices that resembled pocket calculators — which, hanging on orange lanyards around people’s necks, gave the lobby at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring the look of a sales convention.

History, of course, has given the answer: Bach “should” have won. More interesting were the tacit questions the evening posed. How did Bach sound to his contemporaries? Is posterity entirely fair in its judgments, particularly about those it has neglected? And would you, in 1723, have been able to tell the music of a genius from that of a merely mortal composer?

Efforts to re-create the audition were hampered — as the group’s artistic director and conductor, Daniel Abraham, made clear — by the fact that a lot of the music has been lost. Several candidates, including Georg Balthasar Schott and Andreas Christoph Duve, have no surviving works, and there are only four extant pieces by Kauffmann, none of them his tryout pieces for the Leipzig job. The winning piece Saturday was “Die Liebe Gottes ist ausgegossen in unsere Herzen” (God’s love is poured out in our hearts), a big, flashy, polished, engaging cantata ornate with trumpets and timpani (energetically played by Michelle Humphries).

The Sinfonia was further stymied by the last-minute illness of the scheduled soprano, Celine ­Ricci. Emily Noel, her fresh-voiced replacement, did a superb job in an unfamiliar repertoire, but the Sinfonia decided under the circumstances to cancel the solo cantata that would have been the other Kauffmann work on the program (both North American premieres).


Craig Lemming, a tenor, offered a crisp voice with a kind of precision that sometimes bordered on the fussy. (Courtesy of The Bach Sinfonia)

Whatever performance standards were like in 18th-century Leipzig, the Bach Sinfonia offered a convincing replica of an uneven local band. A couple of the cantatas — Bach’s “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwolfe” and Graupner’s “Aus der Tiefen rufen wir” — got off to woefully muddy starts, and each section showed, at different times, some unevenness. (It was curious how the violins could sound at sea in slow movements but come together for the more technically difficult rapid fingerwork.)

The singers were generally good. Phillip Collister, at his best, sang with a smooth, warm bass. Craig Lemming, a tenor, offered a crisp voice with a kind of precision that sometimes bordered on the fussy. The countertenor, Charles Humphries, pounced on his high notes with alarming aggression. Backing up the four soloists was a solid one-to-a-part chorus.

Posterity tends to honor artists who thought outside the box, but part of Bach’s genius was that he did so well fulfilling the boxlike requirements of the post he won. It may be the less-known repertory from this era that sounds fresher today because of its unfamiliarity. Still, the three Graupner works started to feel a little wearying, and Bach’s “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn,” after all the music by other composers, sounded pretty special. Indeed, it scored the highest of any piece with the audience.

But the voting results didn’t show any real grappling with the deeper issues. On a scale of 1 to 10, most of the votes for all the pieces were in the 7 to 9 range. Only .74 of a point lay between the highest-ranked piece and the lowest — both by Bach — and Kauffmann beat Bach’s combined score by .07 of a point. Today, it seems, it all sounds pretty good to us.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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