Trevor Stephenson and his Madison Bach Musicians always reveal how much Baroque music, performed in proper period style, can be a revelation. In his Dec. 16 concert at the First Congregational Church, however, he and his colleagues daringly took on the holiday season, when we are awash in so much shallow "family entertainment," to show in particular what integrity, substance and beauty there is to be enjoyed in the alternative of Baroque literature.
The season of Advent and Christmas was present as an overall theme, but not oppressively so. The first half of the concert was devoted to three "orchestral" concertos by those two great Italian masters, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi. Corelli's "Christmas" Concerto grosso Op. 6, No. 8, was indeed intended to be given church performances on Christmas Eve. Too often, this work is played and recorded with overabundant string-orchestra lushness. This time, eight string players (mostly one per part) joined with Stephenson on harpsichord, using period instruments, pitch and playing style, to treat us to the kind of sonic transparency and magical lucidity that the composer and his contemporaries would have expected.
Likewise with the "Autumn" and "Winter" Concertos from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" cycle. So terribly overplayed, and usually with scanty degrees of understanding, these two works came alive in appropriate chamber dimensions, rather than full-orchestra opulence. Taking turns in the solo roles, the two lead violinists, Kangwon Kim and (especially) Edith Hines, pointed up the delicious sound effects and programmatic evocation built into the virtuosic display parts.
In the second half, the instrumentalists were augmented by four fine young singers. They began in four short four-part a cappella Christmas pieces from Palestrina, Praetorius and traditional sources. Then each singer soloed in one of four Christmas selections from the sacred songs that Bach harmonized for the collection published by Schemelli. Joined by gambist Anna Steinhoff with Stephenson, the quartet sang one of the "Small Sacred Concertos" published in 1639 by Heinrich Schütz, "Allein Gott in der Höhe."
As the grand finale, all forces joined in a relatively brief but pungent Advent cantata by Bach, "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (BWV 61). Tenor Peter Gruett and soprano Rachel Edie Warrick were eloquent in their solo arias, bass Nathan Krueger had a telling recitative, and mezzo-soprano Jessica Timman shared in the opening and closing choruses.
As always, Stephenson preceded the concert with one of his lectures, delivering commentary and notes on the program with his usual combination of humor and profound knowledge. Awareness of how much these lectures contribute to appreciation of the concerts has spread, so that a considerable proportion of the gratifyingly large audience came early to take advantage of this dimension.
Stephenson and his troupe will extend their attention to Bach's cantatas with a selection of them in their next performances, April 14 and 15, at Grace Episcopal Church. Those who have ears to hear will not need any seasonal inducements.