Any Bach-lover who was not at Sanders Theatre Saturday evening has cause to regret it. Bach performed really well is a rare event. The concert given by the Cantata Singers under the direction of Leo Collins was such an event.
The ensemble of 26 singers and 11 instrumentalists performed the cantatas "Der Herr denket an uns" (BWV 196), "Ich bin ein guter Hirt" (BWV 85), "Ihr Menschen, Ruehmet Gottes Liebe" (BWV 167), and the motet "Komm, Jesu, komm" (BWV 229) elegantly and unpretentiously. They produced a full but never heavy sound; the chorus's long threads of melody were sung smoothly and sensitively; the diction was inpeccable. Collins's phrasing and dynamics avoided the spectacular, but could be striking on occasion through their subtlety. He chose to take the final cadence of "Der Herr denket" simply and quietly, rather than grandly and pompously; as a result, this cadence was one of the most satisfying moments of the evening.
"Der Herr denket" did, however, suffer slightly through being somewhat uniform in sound, especially since the entire soprano section sang the soprano aria, and all the men sang the tenor-bass duet, for no apparent reason. Part of the function of these solos is to break up the homogeneity of the choral sound, and though the chorus sang lightly and clearly enough to prevent their sounding rough or gross, the listener missed the delicate sound of individual voices singing ornate lines clearly intended for solo performance.
The elimination of these solos was all the more puzzling because the soloists did begin to sing in "Ich bin ein guter Hirt." Marsha Vleck, soprano; Jane Struss, contralto; Karl Dan Sorensen, tenor, and Francis Hester, bass, all sang clearly and sensitively, and, like the chorus, without any heaviness or pretension. Sorensen was especially fine, floating without apparent effort over long lines almost continuously in his highest register. Hester was stronger in "Ihr Menschen" than in "Ich bin ein guter Hirt," in which there were moments when he was almost covered by the orchestra. Penelope Ann Colwell and Cynthia Weinrich, who sang the soprano-alto duet in "Ihr Menschen," were also quite good, although Miss Weinrich, who sang the alto recitative immediately preceding the duet, lacked some of the clarity and lightness of the other soloists, and had some slight pitch difficulties.
"Komm, Jesu, komm" was especially impressive. This motet calls for a double chorus, which was composed of those same 26 singers, who nonetheless filled Sanders with sound. In "Komm, Jesu" the contrast between full choral forte and delicate choral piano was most effective; Collins and the chorus surpassed all that they had done previously. The instrumental ensemble (strings, oboes, and harpsichord), which did not seem to be technically quite up to the level of the chorus and soloists, also came into its own and played its best in this piece.
A note at the bottom of the program announces that the concert was recorded for eventual radio broadcast by WGBH. A broadcast can hardly substitute for a live performance, but anyone who missed the concert Saturday would still do well to tune in.