Divine Intervention – Leipzig and the Ring of Bach Cantatas 8 – 10 June 2018

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The interior of the Nikolaikirche
Saturday 9 June 2018  20.00   Nikolaikirche

The forces of Nature made the evening of Saturday 9 June 2018 particularly memorable. From my lofty seat in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, lightning flashed across the copper-clad roof diffusing for a brief moment a sacred glow over the tall supporting Neo-classical ‘palm-tree Corinthian’ columns. Deep-throated thunder shook the church to its foundations. Theatrical enough in effect one might think in an empty church but the pews were full to capacity and the space filled, at first with the harmonies of Timor et Tremor by Giovanni Gabrieli, then with the uplifting spirituality of the Bach Cantata BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I (O eternity, O word of thunder I) for the First Sunday after Trinity. The almost operatic conjunction of the wild storm outside and the supplicant mood within the church would surely have satisfied the 17th century German poet and dramatist Johann von Rist who wrote much of the frightening text:

O eternity, O word of thunder…

  1. CHORALE

As long as a God dwells in heaven

And moves above all the clouds,

Such torments shall never cease:

Men shall be plagued by heat and cold,

Fear, hunger, terror, fire and lightning,

Which shall, though, not devour them.

For this torment shall only end,

When God is no longer eternal.

Added to this scene, reminiscent in atmosphere of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, was the brilliance of the performers of the cantata, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner. It was a magnificent performance, replete with energy, nuance and ardent spiritual weight.

At the beginning of this concert, a pastor had read aloud from the Gospel of John: ‘Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”‘  This was followed by the anguished cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Wailing, Fretting, Fearing) BWV 12. 

The plea for steadfastness in the face of life’s afflictions was most movingly portrayed by this magnificent choir and soloists. One cannot help but be drawn to reflections on negative personal experiences and the healing effect Bach’s music has on one when in distress. They were supported seamlessly by the virtuoso orchestra under a ‘Gardiner’ who understood deeply in his personal life the planting of trees and the tending and bringing into glorious bloom any treasured plants given to his care.

Then two sung motets were sung before the Whitsun cantata BWV 103 Ihr Werdet Weinen und Heulen (You Shall Weep and Lament). The inclusion of motets, sung at the time by choristers of the Thomaskirche, is a practice I only recently learned was common in the liturgical performance of Bach’s Cantatas in Leipzig. They were mainly taken from the Floregium Portense (1618). This was a superb rendition of the cantata, impossible to fault, especially in such an original venue so intimately associated with Bach. The Nikolaikirche was frequented by the more affluent citizens of this great trading capital, unlike the more famous Thomaskirche for the more ‘ordinary citizen’.

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Thomaskirche Leipzig
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Nikolaikirche Leipzig

Whilst the storm began to break over us, another pastor again read aloud from the pulpit of the ‘Coming of the Holy Spirit’ from the Acts of the Apostles. The reading was theatrically driven from the heavens exactly on cue as if by divine intervention.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 

Then followed a festive and brilliant performance of the cantata O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung Der Liebe (O Eternal Fire, O Source of Love) BWV 34. Opening trumpets, timpani and chorus absolutely triumphant and splendid. Finally as described above the operatic O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort complete with astonishing deus ex machina stage effects courtesy of Mother Nature – rain, wind, thunder and lightning.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The ‘iron curtain’ that divided Europe after World War II was not only a political and militarized division. In addition the barrier was cultural and deeply personal. I had always wanted to visit those Central-Eastern European cities so deeply associated with the flowering and establishment of the Western literature and the musical canon, cities so ruthlessly isolated until 1989. Leipzig, Weimar, Dresden, Halle, Zwickau. The major composers associated with them – J.S. Bach, W.F. Bach, Handel, Wagner (born in Leipzig), Mendelssohn, Mahler, Zelenka, Quantz, Weber, Liszt, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss and Grieg.

So now I was finally in the Leipzig of my imagination, a vibrant and ancient trade and cultural city populated predominantly by the young. This gives the air an affecting contemporary vitality and vibrancy. The city has undergone a spectacular rebirth since the grey communist days when it played such an important peaceful role in the collapse of the GDR. Construction, reconstruction and restoration are everywhere to be seen. The Gewandhaus is one of the greatest concert halls in Europe with an orchestra of intensely committed musicians.

Leipzig on this occasion did not attract me as a general ‘tourist’ but rather to draw into my heart the healing spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach. The story of the Leipziger Kantanten-Ring was an extraordinarily bold conception that was presented from 8-10 June 2018. Cycles determine our lives on many existential levels. The title of the 2018 Bach festival was in fact Cycles. After discussion concerning the Cantata Days, already a customary part of the Bach Festivals in Leipzig, Sir John Eliot Gardiner commented ‘We have to perform Bach’s 30 best cantatas one after the other in a short period of time. The pieces are so incredibly good, they’re in no way inferior to the Passions.’

One might reasonably ask how does one choose 33 among nearly 200 masterpieces to perform in 18 hours of music over one weekend alternately in the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche? A sense of inevitability then that the marathon cycle would be named Kantanten-Ring after that operatic tetralogy composed by another great Leipzig composer Richard Wagner.

The cantatas were grouped according to their place in the church year. Corresponding Gospel or Epistle texts were read before each cantata and the motets from the anthology mentioned above were performed. This ancient musical practice was revived in the Ring and I felt added a powerful and religiously moving immanence to every performance in these historic churches. The attempt to restore a detailed religious context to the performances was a creative idea that was profoundly moving to this ‘lapsed Catholic’.

Invitations were extended to the finest Bach interpreters of our time: Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists; Ton Koopman with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir; Masaaki Susuki with his Bach Collegium Japan and the Gaechinger Cantorey under their conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann all accepted the invitation. I did not attend all the cantatas but a representative selection.

I am not a religious person by any means, yet felt compelled to write in the detail I have below as this cycle of cantatas In Leipzig became such a transformative musical and personal revelation.

Friday 8 June 2018 17.00   Thomaskirche

The opening concert at 5.00pm on June 8 in the Thomaskirche explored works that led to Bach. However it began with a tempestuous opening of the familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 superlatively played by the organist of the Thomaskirche, Ullrich Boehme. The organ is indeed impressive but not the original instrument which was destroyed by wartime bombs. I have always been inspired by the organ music of Bach as so many of us. I remember watching a film of the dancing feet of the neglected musical brilliance of Karl Richter on the organ pedals wearing patent leather pumps. An extraordinary and unique artistic sight in fugal passages.

Two motet cycles followed by two precursors of Bach, the former Cantor of the Thomaskirche, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), a master of the stylo madrigalesco, who introduced many modern spacial developments in musical performance from Venice.

Also we heard motets by Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), ‘the father of German music’ who studied under Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice. Artfully performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the eloquent choir of the Thomaskirche of such ancient tradition. The festive Gloria  of the Mass in F major BWV 233 by Bach was particularly successful with this orchestra and choir and a joyful contribution to the Cantata cycle.

The acoustic of the Thomaskirche is of honeyed, lightly reverberant sweetness when the church has a full congregation as on this occasion. I anticipated the coming cycle with some excitement. The concert concluded with a superb, rarely performed chorale cantata composed by the 21 year old  Felix Mendelssohn –  Verleih uns Frieden gnadiglich, MWV A 11 based on Luther’s hymn – only two years after his revival of the St. Matthew Passion.

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The Gothic splendours of the Thomaskirche

The Leipzig city authorities are aware of the responsibility to make the Bach Festival as available to everyone as possible and not an expensive elitist musical indulgence. The tickets are rather expensive for many young people and students so there was a free open-air concert in the evening of  religious works by Bach and Bernstein (to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth), then later jazz improvisations on Bach by renowned groups. Sausages, beer and good cheer – all very much a baroque ‘techno town’ celebration.

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Saturday 9 June 2018  Day Excursion   Leipzig City

On the morning of June 9th, I decided to some exploring of the city before the concert described above in the evening. The Museum der bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts) is an important European art museum situated in Leipzig. In the face of music one tends to overlook the richness of Leipzig in art, book production and literature. The museum covers artworks from the Late Middle Ages to modernity.  I also decided to take part in a guided walking tour of the city. The museum possessed an extraordinarily eclectic collection of art works which I found faintly disturbing, imbued as I was with the positive faith and sense of direction cemented into the inherited tradition that Bach adopted and exemplifies.

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Andy Warhol portrait between two eighteenth century ladies. 
A thought-provoking arrangement of traditional and modern as are many in this museum
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The Magic of Love 
Lower Rhineland Master 1470

The walking tour was most diverting, highlighting many of the pivotal aspects of Leipzig through the ages – a vital European trading hub, seminal book and publishing centre, city of music and great composers and finally a centre of peaceful revolution against the GDR. Just outside the city one can find an extraordinary memorial and large museum to the Battle of Nations in 1813 when Napoleon was roundly defeated by a coalition army of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden.

Many of the Baroque bourgeois town houses have been exquisitely renovated. The shopping arcades are impressive, alluring to any hedonist. The Maedler Passage arcade, built between 1912 and 1914, is of outstanding historic-architectural importance. Arcades were built to display samples of products – a revolutionary idea in retailing at the time. A rare survival as an architectural feature is the imposing inner courtyard of the Hansa House. Leipzig’s architectural uniqueness lies in the fact that the city possesses such a rich collection of Wilhelminian-style architecture, buildings dating from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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An original Leipzig shopping arcade
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The sole surviving Hansa House Courtyard in Leipzig
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The superb Art Nouveau facade of the Cafe Riquet Leipzig

Before the magnificent cantata with Sir John Eliot Gardiner described at the beginning of this account, I was taken on a guided tour of the Bach Museum by the Curator. The Bose House in St. Thomas Square used to be the home of friends of Bach who were wealthy merchants. There are twelve thematically designed rooms devoted to interactive exhibitions. Many precious items are on display and many original manuscripts which are deeply interesting. One can even ‘compose’ works using a remarkably imaginative method of adding and subtracting instruments from let’s say a Brandenburg Concerto. Of course one could spend years in the Bach Archive researching arcane Bachian matters. One feels an emanation here as Bach spent 27 years (1723-1750) living here, where he taught the boys of the St. Thomas choir and composed the St. Matthew Passion in addition to the B minor Mass. 

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I was hugely impressed by the Thuringian-Saxon Bach family tree initially compiled by Johann Sebastian himself. One wonders at the immense influence this single enormous family of 80 composers, musicians even visual artists must have had on European music and its development. The Bach Archive are working hard on tracing every document associated with each member of the family in a vast database called Bach Digital.

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Organ console by Johann Scheibe,1743, remodeled as a museum object and a treasured relic. One cannot help reflecting on the simplicity of means that Bach had at his disposal to create monumental organ compositions. Can our super-advanced technology be used to create comparable masterpieces of the creative human spirit ? Short answer is ‘No’
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Bach’s immaculate autograph of orchestral parts

The final part of our tour was dinner at the famous restaurant the Auerbachs Keller.  This was quite a thrilling experience for a man born in Australia on the other side of the planet who has always had such a deep love of German literature. This renowned place is the second oldest restaurant in Leipzig. It was a famous wine bar even in the 16th century but its reputation lies with the role it pays in Goethe’s play Faust. The young student Goethe often visited Auerbach’s Cellar while studying at Leipzig University from 1765 to 1768.

There he saw two paintings on wood dating from 1625. One represented  the notorious magician and astrologer Johann Georg Faust carousing with students, and the other depicting Mephistopheles riding out the door astride a wine barrel – obviously in collusion with  the Devil. In the play Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Cellar at the beginning of his travels and introduces him to various visions and magic. After befriending some ‘jolly fellows’ Mephistopheles asks them what wine they like best.

Good, if I have my choice, the Rhenish I propose; 

For still the fairest gifts the fatherland bestows.

They also answer ‘Champagne’ and ‘Tokay’ ! He drills holes in their table, fills the holes with wax stoppers and encourages them to drink their choice. Astounded by the flow of wine, they do so, even ending up transported to a beautiful landscape. Faust is not terribly impressed and asks to leave. The ‘jolly fellows’ soon realize it was a magic trick after they see Mephistopheles and Faust ride out of the Cellar astride a wine barrel. Before the John Eliot Gardiner cantata concert we had rustic classic Saxon cuisine and dark beer in one of the Auerbach restaurants dating from 1912 known as the Grosse Keller.

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Sunday 10 June 2018   11.30   Thomaskirche

The first cantata concert on 10 June was at 11.30 at the Thomaskirche given by Bach Collegium Japan under their conductor Masaaki Suzuki. We began with a reading from the New Testament Luke 16, 19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus.

Then the cantata Die Elenden sollen essen, (‘The poor shall eat’) BWV 75.  This was Bach’s first official cantata in Leipzig after taking up his post and performed first on 30 May, 1723. There are fourteen movements that deal with poverty in opposition to wealth. The first part of the work is predominantly in the style of the fashionable French dance suite, dealing with the spiritual Christian moral dilemma of wealth confronted by poverty. The second part deals even more spiritually with the same opposition. For the first time I heard the perfect pitch, intonation and tuning of the Bach Collegium choir and soloists, a remarkable moment in this church. The orchestral ensemble was simply superb, extraordinarily refined and elegant.

The choir featured magnificently in the next cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (‘Break your bread with the hungry’) BWV 39 (Isaiah 58:7-8) which opens with an immense choral section. An extraordinary variety of musical forms and pathetic moods – fugal, chromatic and lyrical – flow between instruments and voices. The pathos explodes into joy at the conclusion. The Bach Collegium were heavenly and breathtakingly beautiful in this cantata.

It seemed to me that there was such a contemporary relevance to this theme when one considers the current immigrant crisis in Europe, the plight of the homeless, the hungry sleeping rough and the displaced. The settings of such relevant poetry and scripture in the cycle had begun to affect me, morally guiding me to ask rather deeper questions about the conduct of my own life. Bach often has the dual influence of examination of conscience and healing after reflection.

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Maasaki Suzuki

The reading by the pastor before the next Cantata that of The Parable of the Great Banquet from the Gospel according to St. Luke 14, 15-24. Jesus spoke of a great man who had invited many eminent guests to his banquet but who at the last moment cancelled for selfish reasons. The man was furious and ordered his servant to go out into the roads, the lanes and slums and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to the banquet.

The motet In Domino Deo Gaudebimus was performed as a type of spiritual prologue to the Bach cantata  Ach Gott, Von Himmel Sieh Darein (Ah, God look down from heaven) BWV 2. It is based on Martin Luther’s Paraphrase of Psalm 12 (the Second Sunday after Trinity 1724). ‘Resist heresy and all the spirit-babble…’ The effect is rather austere and even written in an archaic motet style whilst the contrasting arias are in what was known as the ‘modern style’ – concertante writing with solo obbligato (violin) instrumentation.

The efforts of man to base his own salvation on his own sad attempts are considered pathetic and hopeless. With the familiar Lutheran fierceness of metaphor ‘…they are like the graves of the dead which, though fine from the outside, contain only rottenness and stench and display nothing but filth.’ Bach turns to allusions of alchemy (incidentally pursued by Augustus the Strong in Dresden resulting not in gold but porcelain) referencing silver purified by fire.

The Bach Collegium again gave us superb ensemble in both choir and orchestra with perfect intonation it seemed to me (although I only possess good relative pitch). The subtly inflected and contrasting emotional melodic lines were eloquently expressed. In emotional moods both piteous and sometimes splenetic, the opposition of Bach’s archaic and ‘modern’ styles was finely accomplished. I found the passionate restraint of this entire cantata ‘Ring’ concert most affecting.

Sunday 10 June 2018   17.00    Thomaskirche

This concert, given by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under their conductor Ton Koopman, was devoted to the quartet of cantatas for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity. The pastor read from Gospel according to St. Luke, Chapter 7, 11-17. This deals with the miraculous raising to life by Jesus of the only son of the widow of the town of Nain.

The refinement of the ensemble underpinned by rhythmic strength of the Dutch band was clear throughout the performance. In the opening cantata BWV 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde (Come sweet hour of death) composed during Bach’s Weimar period in 1715, the Lutheran yearning for death is clear and the call of death becomes a thematic trope. The sweetness of the world’s delights is as loathsome as poison until death transfigures life to shine like the sun. The emotions of this desire were sensitively cultivated in a perfect baroque idiom by the orchestra and Ton Koopman. The extreme nature of these thoughts I found hard to absorb with any spiritual equanimity.

The Motet by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) Si bona suscepimus preceded the next Bach cantata BWV (1724) Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben  (Dearest God, when shall I die?). This ensemble has an intimate understanding of the extraordinary orchestral soundscape of this cantata (two oboes d’amore over a muted staccato quaver accompaniment by the upper strings and pizzicato in the bass). Above this a flute hovers and flutters like a bird chirruping, quite out of its normal range of flight. In his notes in the excellent programme book, Sir John Eliot Gardiner refers to the ‘elegiac and iridescent tenderness’ of this first chorus.

Ton Koopman maintained a touching feeling of the questioning Christian on the ultimate question of mortality with his usual robust yet understated strength of harmonic direction. Klaus Mertens in the bass aria (No.4 Doch weichet…) sang with great strength and joy-filled rhythmic drive of the dance (so suited to the Amsterdam Orchestra and Koopman) maintaining an optimistic faith in the better life offered by Jesus.

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The next cantata presented was BWV 27 (1726)  We weiß, wie nahe mir ( Who knows how near is my end?). The lamentation and pulsating human heartbeat at the core of this moving opening with its interlocked chorale and recitatives by soprano, alto and tenor was desperately moving in the Thomaskirche whose acoustic seemed to concentrate the tragic utterances with deeply felt intensity. I was constantly reminded of both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions in the cries to the Lord. The bass aria ‘Good night, O turmoil of the world!’ was delivered with all the disturbed yearning of the Lutheran for heaven. The Amsterdam Orchestra and Choir expressed this aspiration for heavenly glory to perfection.

Another appropriate motet this time by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591) Media vita in morte summus which was followed by the final cantata for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity by this orchestra, BWV 95 (1723) Christus, der ist mein Leben  (Christ is my life).

From the outset so many wondrous instrumental and vocal moments in this cantata! The battling dialogues of the corno and oboes introducing Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis are full of Reformation conviction. Can one also interpret this conflict as the final struggle between the spirit of life and death? The ‘jazzy’ trumpets, violins, pregnant silences and vitality of these instrumental and vocal choral passages were beautifully realized in Ton Koopman’s intense sprung rhythms and energetic conducting of this brilliant orchestra and choir.

I particularly liked the Aria Ach, schlager doch bald, selge Stunde (Ah, strike then soon, blessed hour) with the marvellous pizzicato on the strings which seems to imitate the clicking of a clock mechanism as the final hour approaches for a man.

One might conclude from the simplicity of these beautiful cantatas that Bach was responding musically to a recent death in his family, his three year old daughter Christiane Sophia just a few months before composing BWV 27.

Sunday 10 June 2018   20.00   Nikolaikirche

I was indeed fortunate to obtain a scarce ticket for the final group of cantatas performed in the Nikolaikirche by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

‘Bach has been like a friend to me. I grew up with his portrait hanging at the top of our staircase and have been dealing with this bewigged, rather frowning character ever since. He spent his life dealing with grief and was not the dry academic everybody thinks.’

Of the 200 Bach cantatas : ‘What I find fascinating about them is this constant variation on two planes at once: you hear them horizontally, as a haunting and beautiful melody, or as counterpoint or polyphony, all against the fundament of the basso continuo; and at the same time you hear them vertically, with all Bach’s rhythmical bounce, his upward aspiration.’

The pastor read from Revelations 12, 7-12

There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; 
and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; 
neither was their place found any more in heaven.

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This reading was followed Cantata BWV 19 (1726) Es erhub ein Streit (There arose a war).  This St. Michael’s Day work is conceived in monumental grandeur for the brass and in the opening chorus replete with bravura gestures of enormous theatrical variety and drama. Truly an instrumental ‘war in heaven’. The battle between St. Michael and the ‘raging serpent,  the infernal dragon’ then follows with more tumult.

Then at the other end of the expressive spectrum, as Sir John colourfully observes of the tenor aria No. 5 Bleibt, ihr Engel,bleiby bei mir! (Stay, ye angels, stay by me!), the tender plea ‘evoking the ever-watchful protection afforded by the guardian angels wheeling around in the stratosphere.’ The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under Gardiner communicated an intense air of authority and almost operatic involvement at an immanent level in this work. They bring to Bach both power and majesty.

The pastor then read from the Gospel according to St. Luke 19, 41- 48 wherein Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.

This was followed a fine performance of a cantata by that predecessor of Bach, the musical genius, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) Nim von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, (Take away from us, Lord, faithful God)BuxWV 78 with a plea to the Lord to preserve us from war, famine, epidemics, fire and the greatest harm.

The expressive power and sensitivity of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists was brought to full account in the Bach cantata BWV 101 (1724) Nim von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (Take away from us, Lord, faithful God). The text is based on a hymn by Martin Moller written during the time of the plague in 1584 and sung to the melody of Luther’s German version of the Lord’s Prayer (Gardiner). Here we have an inescapable musical statement of punishment as the wages of sin. The strokes of divine wrath are in the heavy blows of dissonance which Gardiner expressed without restraint. I found this personally rather unsettling.

There are some superb arias in this cantata. One is rather a furious and angry response to the punishment given to the bass No. 4 Warum willst du so zornig sein? (Why wouldst thou be so angry?). Peter Harvey was convincingly emotional in this protest. For me one of the most beautiful arias was the beautifully performed (if slightly theatrical) soprano and alto duet No. 6 Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod! (Think on Jesus’s bitter death), a delicate imploring plea for compassion in the face of the distress of sin with a most eloquent and affecting presentation of the chorale tune alternating between the obbligato flute and oboe da caccia.  We are reminded of Jesus’s compassion in the face of his own ‘bitter death’. For me the emotions of compassion,  and the need to relieve suffering is of the highest importance.  Bach in the cantatas, possibly because of the religious texts, forces one into moments of self-examination as we are almost always tempted to inaccurately judge actions or motivations.

The pastor then read from the Gospel according to St. Luke 17, 11-19 wherein Jesus cleanses ten lepers. Leprous sin must be cleansed…

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Jesus Heals Ten Lepers and Only the Samaritan Returns to Give Thanks

This was followed by a great masterpiece among the cantatas, BWV 78 (1724) Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, who has wrested my soul). The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are surely unsurpassed in the irresistible power and majesty they bring to the great choral lament composed as a passacaglia that opens this work. The sheer virtuosity of this choir and orchestra and Gardiner’s ‘relentlessly demanding’ standards of performance can never be overlooked.

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The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

In addition this noble dance (dance obsesses Gardiner) speaks to us of tragedy and magnificence perhaps known to Bach through the profoundly tragic keyboard Passacaglia of Francois Couperin (1716), just possibly Purcell’s Dido’s Lament but not the Chaconne from Les Indes galantes (1735-6) by Rameau. To invest this solemn dance with religious significance was surely a uniquely expressive idea. Gardiner commented:

‘The way I approach Bach is ungermanic. I’m looking for the rhythmic zest. I believe passionately that you worship the gods in the Old Testament way, by dancing – and that of course comes from my upbringing. The aspiration [in Bach] comes from the voices, and above all the trumpets. Whenever Bach gets a trumpet out the heavens open for me.’

In the tenor’s recitative that follows we are movingly introduced to the nature of ‘leprous sin’ and the attendant regrets of the soul. A beautiful aria for tenor with tender flute obbligato then reminds us of grateful redemption through the shedding of Christ’s blood. The soloists of the Monteverdi Choir all have notable and superb voices with perfect intonation.

In perhaps an unusual indication in the recitative for Bass that follows we move from a meditation on the agony of the cross to redemption thorough His sacrifice. Reaching the words ‘When a terrible judge lays a curse upon the damned’ the bass is directed to sing con adore (with passion). I feel this indication more than justifies expressing full-blooded passion, emotion and temperament in Bach (just consider his extraordinarily rich musical and joyful yet tragic personal life). The modern view of Bach’s life is rather sanitized compared to the reality. Gardiner observes:

‘We yearn to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then … so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then … so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being.’

Certainly Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians bring great passion, theatre and drama to all their performances of the Bach cantatas. On occasion, in our modern musicologically  and structurally dominated times, the strictly ‘historically correct’ minimalist performance too often results in the etiolation of heated human emotion. He commented on his intention ‘to make the singing extrovert, extravagant, passionately delivered, not done in that prissy English way.’ The final aria perfectly balances bass voice against the oboe (almost like a concerto for the instrument) offering ‘hope to the unquiet conscience’ (Gardiner). This was a majestically presented performance of this masterwork of the Baroque.

The current neglect of the Munich Bach Orchestra under Karl Richter is a mystery to my generation whose intense love of Bach was forged in their powerfully creative crucible. They possessed such an alternative, full-blooded rounded view of ‘mighty Bach’ compared to the ‘authentic’ Urtext concerns of our time. After all, Bach in his cantatas was partly limited by the forces at his disposal.

In the final work the pastor prepared us by reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

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Five of the Seven Wise Virgins

The final work in the Leipzig Ring of Cantatas was perhaps the best known of all the Bach cantatasBWV 140 (1731) Wachet auf, Ruft uns die stimme (Wake up, cries the watchman’s voice). The great Bach scholar William Whittaker (1876-1944) writes of this work that it exemplifies the ‘glorious ripeness of [Bach’s] maturity … it is a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, technically, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order.’ 

The tremendous irresistible inertia of the forward-driving tempo Gardiner developed in the muscularly rhythmic and declamatory French Overture opening chorus was magnificent, bringing that unmistakable electricity streaking along the spine when one is confronted with the greatest in art. Heart-breaking tenderness and sensitive sensuality was brought to the duet Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil (When wilt thou come, my Salvation). In this eloquent siciliano on the violin,  can one imagine the glimmering of the virgins’ lamps?

The mood of the opening returns in the familiar choral ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’ followed by the joy of the duet with oboe obbligato between the the Soul and Jesus Mein Freund ist mein. Here I was reminded of the sublimated religious ecstasy contained in the poetry of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. In such outpouring, of what one must admit speaks of the influence of operatic love, Bach weaves what I might call ‘intellectual emotions’ into his music.

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The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists with Sir John Eliot Gardiner just before, as an encore, he conducted the audience in a reprise of the final extraordinarily moving Wachet auf chorale, Des sind wir froh, Io,Io! Ewig in dulcet jubilo. The triumphal conclusion of this remarkable Leipziger-Kantaten-Ring

In a gesture of the finest human inclusion, a gesture of warmest ecumenism, Sir John Eliot Gardiner turned to the audience and movingly conducted us all in singing the reprise of the last chorale of Wachet auf once more, as it would have happened in 1731. At the words Des sind wir froh, Io,Io! Ewig in dulcet jubilo (Therefore we are glad, Io,Io! Eternally in dulcet jubilo) the roof of the Nikolaikirche was almost lifted from its palm pillars, the garden of God. Such was the fervent response to both Bach and the inspired conducting and deep inclusive humanism of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

The fulcrum of the liturgical year is the last Sunday of Trinity before Advent. The rousing final chorale Gloria sei dir gesungen (Glory now be sung to thee) brought to a fitting conclusion my extraordinary experience, home of the Leipziger Kantaten-Ring, a musical epiphany that will remain with me to the end of my days. Listening to these Bach cantatas in the original liturgical arrangement, in virtuoso performances musically so close to the original, embraced by the unique ambiance of the churches for which Bach originally composed them, was a musical and spiritual experience of a unique and unforgettable kind.

bach's grave
The grave of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig  at the time of the Kantaten-Ring June 2018

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