Verily, I say unto you: 400 years ago, the King James Bible was published, the translation of the Bible still most familiar to English-speaking Christians. The Folger Consort marked the anniversary Friday night with a concert in conjunction with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s new exhibit, “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible.” Texts from the King James Bible, or earlier English translations, were presented in a selection of choral music from 17th-century England.
The 12 singers of Cathedra, the chamber vocal ensemble of Washington National Cathedral, performed the choral parts of these pieces with a limpid and finely balanced sound. Director Michael McCarthy focused his singers’ rhythmic ensemble with a clean beat, scaling the dynamics to the intimacy of the room and the closeness of the audience. This made possible many more gradations of soft sound, like the angelic piano moment at the words “Peace in heaven” in the middle of Orlando Gibbons’s “Hosanna to the Son of David,” heard, as it were, through a glass, darkly. Verse anthems featured estimable solos or solo groups from the ensemble, with tenor Aaron Sheehan standing out for the beauty of his voice in Purcell’s “My beloved spake.”
Concerts of the Folger Consort have become, more and more, platforms for guest performers, supported somewhat meekly by the resident musicians. That was also true on the instrumental side, with Adam Pearl in virtuosic turns of two solo pieces, by Gibbons and John Blow, on a small chest organ. Purcell’s resplendent trio sonata in F featured the best performance of the otherwise somewhat uneven string group. To paraphrase the King James Bible, one can sing with the tongues of angels yet still a performance can become, at times, as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.