Madison has its own lively corner of period-instrument performance in Baroque music. There are now two well-established groups, each giving some three programs every season. The Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble concentrates on instrumental and vocal chamber music. The Madison Bach Musicians are committed to larger-scale works, with a focus on the music of J.S. Bach.
As directed by Trevor Stephenson, the enterprising harpsichordist and musicologist, the Bach Musicians gave their first concert of the season last weekend. The location - Trinity Lutheran Church - was particularly appropriate, since the featured works were cantatas composed for Lutheran use by Bach, the ultimate Lutheran composer.
The ensemble has concentrated on Bach's cantatas, with the dream of working through them all (over 200) some day. The two chosen this time were "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" (BWV 3) for the second Sunday after Epiphany, and "Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben" (BWV 8), for the 16th Sunday after Trinity. Stephenson presented them exactly as scored, and with one singer or player per part.
Each cantata was prefaced by music from another composer. The opener was Corelli's beloved "Christmas Concerto grosso" in G minor (Op. 6, No. 8). After the intermission we had Handel's perky "Sonata in F" for recorder and bass (Op. 1, No. 11). For these works, Stephenson drew upon a pool of 15 performers. The singers included the always welcome mezzo-soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe and her husband, bass Paul Rowe. Rachel Edie Warrick's clear, ringing soprano was a joy, while Peter Gruett created eloquent recitatives with his clean high-tenor voice. There were seven string players, together with Stephenson himself, on not one but two alternate harpsichords, both built by Madison craftsman Norman Sheppard. As always, Stephenson prefaced the performance with a typically amiable but illuminating lecture.
Stephenson's dedication to this music was clearly shared by his colleagues, who demonstrated the best combination of period-style performance with committed artistry. Bach's cantatas in particular are rarely heard in concert performances, so Madison is truly blessed by this continuing exposure to them.