Johann Sebastian Bach so revered Dietrich Buxtehude that he walked 250 miles from
Arnstadt to Lübeck just to hear his music in person.
For the 20-year-old Bach, the elder composer represented everything he hoped to be—an autonomous musician with a flair for both drama and subtlety. Bach knew Buxtehude’s music through study. But hearing it live made a lasting impression, and the young composer crafted many of his later works with the same ear for spectacle.
That blend of reverence and urgency provided the ideal vehicle for guest conductor Jonathan Cohen and the Handel and Haydn Society, who offered cantatas by Bach and Buxtehude in their season-opening program at Symphony Hall on Friday night.
Bach’s cantatas vary widely in form, though many of his biggest works showcase a vibrancy and power. Buxtehude's surviving cantatas are smaller on scale. Yet they routinely capture reflective solemnity.
They also, at times, channel an amusing levity. His Der Herr ist mit mir concludes in an “Alleluia" that spotlights the chorus in delightfully stuttering phrases. Cohen’s clear direction revealed all its charm and an otherwise stoic assurance.
Bach’s Nun komm der Heiden Heiland channels religious devotion through similar play between light and darkness. The soloists provided stark contrasts. Tenor Andrew Haji found the soft radiance of “Der Heiland ist gekommen" and the gentle flow of “Komm, Jesu, komm.” Michael Sumuel’s cavernous bass-baritone conveyed the desolation of “Siehe, ich stehe,” while soprano Lauren Snouffer revealed the understated grace of “Öffne dich.” In dual roles as harpsichordist and conductor, Cohen drew out the joyous energies from the choruses.
The conductor sees Bach’s music for the lively venture it is, highlighting every melodic curve and wistful flourish. Bach’s Wachet auf ,ruft uns die Stimme provided the evening’s greatest drama. The chorus’s usual crisp diction brought the thick textures of the opening movement into sharp relief. “Zion hört die Wächter singen,” sung by the ensemble tenors, unfolded in sweeping dimensions, and the final chorale fully realized the text's joyful exuberance.
Indeed, the cantata tells of Christ coming for his bride, the church. Yet Snouffer and Sumuel made such religious symbolism into a warm duet between lovers. The accompaniment was just as affecting: Christian Day Martinson’s piccolo violin provided silvery complement, while Debra Nagy’s oboe solo conveyed pastoral sweetness.
Gloria in excelsis Deo is Bach’s only extant cantata with a Latin text. Cohen and the chorus made it into a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving. The “Gloria Patri,” reused from Bach’s Mass in B minor, displayed Snouffer and Hadji in lyrical delicacy.
Rounding out the concert was Bach’s familiar Orchestral Suite No. 3. The H&H period instrument orchestra sounded as good as ever. Lines shaped with colorful dynamics conveyed the momentum and zest of the overture and dance movements. The famous Air, enhanced by Cohen’s rippling harpsichord arpeggios, made for a sensitive departure.
For an encore, Cohen led Bach’s “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” with tenderness and grace—Bach’s most memorable and enduring qualities.
The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org