CAMBRIDGE -- The Cantata Singers ended their season Saturday with an unusual selection of religious works from three eras of Austro-German music. It would've been a delight to hear. But the concert turned into a missed opportunity, as the group's celebrated care and precision all but evaporated in the cloudy acoustics of First Church. In the works by Bruckner, Hindemith, and Schuetz, one could hear three distinct visions of God. Bruckner's Mass in E minor (for winds, brass, and chorus) is a work that fervently praises a wonderful, yet remote, God, one infinitely worthy of human worship but also infinitely removed from the human world. Bruckner's masses have never met with the popularity enjoyed by his symphonies, and part of the reason is that they forge together vastly dissimilar musical styles. The E minor Mass (1882) alternates chaste, Renaissance-style polyphony and thunderous unison passages.
Hindemith's 1947 "Apparebit repentina dies," for brass and chorus, made a wild contrast. The text, a fantastical medieval acrostic, offers a red-blooded portrait of the Final Judgment, in which those at Jesus's right hand attain eternal bliss, while those at his left are condemned to "immortal worms and limitless fires." Here is an intensely active deity, storming through the world with trumpets and quaking angels in tow.
Hindemith responds in kind, using his formidable technical skills to craft some of the most passionate and imaginative music he would ever write.
Both of these works are imposing in their own way, which is why it was so apt that music director David Hoose chose Heinrich Schuetz's 1619 setting of Psalm 150 to end the concert. This hymn of praise has always brought out the best in composers, whether because of its mention of song and music or for its uninhibited effusiveness.
A God worthy of being so praised must be a joyous God indeed. Schuetz's setting -- which tosses lines back and forth between sections of the chorus, soloists, and an unusual instrumental ensemble -- was the simplest music on the program, but it was also the most honest, the most emotionally consistent, and in many ways the most effective.
The chorus and associated instrumentalists did the best they could, but their efforts were radically undercut by the unfocused acoustics of a venue thoroughly unsuited to such a program. The first two works repeatedly generated more sound than the room could handle, and at those moments the music turned into an opaque, undifferentiated Mass.
There were some wonderful moments in each piece, such as the delicately unfolding counterpoint of Bruckner's Kyrie and Sanctus, and the dialogues between God (the basses) and the people (the women's voices) in Hindemith's second movement. Both were exquisite in their own way. But these were sadly outweighed by the loss of individual lines in the often intricate polyphony. Even in the Schuetz the chorus sounded too dim for the music to make much of an impact, and some of the vocal soloists were inaudible.
One wonders whether Hoose and his singers might be tempted to try the program again in the more suitable confines of Jordan Hall. In the meantime, they'd be well advised to keep similar offerings out of First Church.