Bach’s personal seal designed by him when appointed
Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Compositeur
Bach, Court Compositeur
Although Bach was the cantor of the Thomaskirche for fifteen years he was also occupied as a court composer. In such aristocratic surroundings he produced sublime music in almost every imaginable style and genre, as well as ground-breaking church music. In this festival will be performed the complete cycle of cantatas he composed in the magnificent city of Weimar, incidentally one of my favourite cities of all time. Last year the Kantaten-Ring cycle was for many of us one of the greatest musical experiences of our lives. I am of course unable to attend all the multitude of the 158 events and over 3,000 participants (25 choirs, 34 orchestras, 39 conductors, 81 solo instrumentalists), but you can hopefully at least enjoy my choice for the limited period of a week I was able to attend.
My account of last year :
All photo credits: Jens Schlüter
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Inaugural Concert June 14th
J. S. Bach: Fantasie G-Dur, BWV 572 (Organ)
M. A. Charpentier: Te Deum D-Dur, H. 146
J. S. Bach: Ouvertüre D-Dur, BWV 1068
J. S. Bach: Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110
Thomasorganist Ullrich Böhme, Gesine Adler (soprano), Cornelia Samuelis (soprano), Elvira Bill (alto), Patrick Grahl (tenor), Tobias Berndt (bass), Thomanerchor Leipzig, Freiburger Barockorchester, direction: Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz.
There were many introductory speeches to the festival of both a light-hearted and serious tone and nature by the Mayor of Leipzig, the Ambassador of Romania and the Executive and Artistic Director Dr. Michael Maul. The concert opened with a demonstration of the wide-ranging musical fantasy and colourful ‘French’ sound landscapes contained in Bach’s fertile imagination. This was clear in the rather rarely performed G major Fantasy BWV 572 for organ. An exciting performance by Ullrich Böhme the present organist of the Thomaskirche.
This was followed by a splendidly noble and ostentatious performance of the grand polyphonic motet by Charpentier Te Deum (1688-1698). It was written in D-major, the Baroque ‘key of glory’ – how singularly appropriate. It is unknown however if Bach knew of the music of Charpentier.
One must never forget the immense ‘mixed taste’ musical, even social, influence of the ‘Sun King’. The French and Italian styles were often in competition and had a great influence on German musicians and the behaviour of court life. It clearly influenced the ‘Piece d’Orgue‘ that opened the concert written by the young Bach in Weimar around 1712. The great flautist at the court of Frederick the Great, Joachim Quantz, also described this ‘mixed taste’ phenomenon. The work was given by the outstanding Freiburger Barockorchester, under the direction of the Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz. The powerful, militaristic and dramatic opening strokes on the tympani focused our attention on the court theme of this festival from the very outset. The choir and singers catalogued above had a perfect command of the baroque idiom and performance practice.
The composition consists of the following parts:
- Prelude (Marche en rondeau)
- Te Deum laudamus (bass solo)
- Te aeternum Patrem (chorus and SSAT solo)
- Pleni sunt caeli et terra (chorus)
- Te per orbem terrarum (trio, ATB)
- Tu devicto mortis aculeo (chorus, bass solo)
- Te ergo quaesumus (soprano solo)
- Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis (chorus)
- Dignare, Domine (duo, SB)
- Fiat misericordia tua (trio, SSB)
- In te, Domine, speravi (chorus with ATB trio)
The next work on the programme also illustrated the French influence on Bach – a joyful and uplifting performance of tremendous rhythmic drive and orchestral opulence, the great joi de vivre of the famous Orchestral Suite in D major, BWV 1068. Dr. Michael Maul eloquently refers to it as ‘hugely effervescent musical champagne!’ The fine Freiburger Barockorchester under Gotthold Schwarz gave us a stimulatingly energetic performance leavened with grace, beauty, charm and optimism in life.
What a wonderful title for the religious cantata the concluded this concert :“Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (“May our mouth be full of laughter”) BWV 110 – an expression of joy at the birth of God’s son. The onomatopoeic rendering of laughter was a supremely accomplished challenge, fulfilled brilliantly by the St. Thomas’ Boys Choir.
I so enjoyed bathing in the joyfulness of the opening concert, so splendidly performed by all involved. ‘Energy is eternal delight’ in the words of William Blake. This concert was such a rebirth of faith in the creative powers of human nature, seemingly in 2019 to be sliding beneath waves of cultural misunderstanding, military tensions and the lamentable misplacement of the true priorities of our brief lives.
Bach and Berlin
15th June 2019 17.00
»Hof-Cantatrice« Anna Magdalena Wilcke-Bach
J. S. Bach: Konzert d-Moll, BWV 1043
J. P. Krieger: Einsamkeit, du Qual der Herzen, aus: Procris (Oper)
Nuria Rial (soprano), Céline Frisch (harpsichord), Café Zimmermann,
PD Dr. Michael Maul (presentation)
Anna Magdalena Wilcke was born into a musical family. By 1721 she was employed as a soprano at the ducal court of Köthen. Bach had been working there as Kapellmeister since December 1717. Bach married Anna on December 3, 1721, 17 months after the death of his first wife and they moved to Leipzig in 1723 when Bach accepted the post of Cantor at the Thomasschule. It was a happy marriage of shared musical interests as Anna Magdalena continued to sing professionally. Thirteen children were born of which seven died at a young age. She was a fine musical hostess and the household became a centre of Leipzig musical activity. After Bach’s death she fell into dire poverty, dealt in Bach manuscripts, but was inexplicably rather abandoned by her children, except for some significant financial assistance from their son C.P.E. Bach. She was reported to have spent time begging in alleyways and finally died in the street and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Leipzig Johanneskirche. A frightful story even if only partially true.
Mendelssohn at the Bach Festival
15th June 2019 20.00
Kongresshalle, Großer Saal
Vilde Frang (violin), Domenico Orlando (oboe)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, direction: Herbert Blomstedt
Most musicians know of the seminal role played by Felix Mendelssohn in the revival of intense interest in the music of J.S. Bach, particularly the St. Mathew Passion. It is almost impossible to believe attending this gigantic Bach festival that only a hundred and fifty years ago his music languished largely unheard. I remember if one mentioned playing and studying Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier one was almost looked at askance as ‘a dull intellectual’. The Bach and Mendelssohn families did interact. Mendelssohn had a great aunt – Sarah Itzig Levy (1761-1854) who was a sister of Bella Salomon, Mendelssohn’s maternal grandmother. Sarah had studied the harpsichord with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and maintained a musical salon in Berlin where Bach’s music was often performed. Mendelssohn’s father collected Bach manuscripts and the first performance of the Passion was at the Singakademie on March 11, 1829. as a result the genius of Bach was resuscitated from obscurity not only in Germany but throughout the world.
The Bach Violin concerto in E major BWV 1042 was finely played by the Gewandhausorchester with Vilde Frang as the expressive, emotionally committed and sensitive soloist. With the elderly Herbert Blomstedt (still active and energetic at 92 – a lesson to us all!) we quite understandably had a rather ‘old school’ performance with little of the ‘informed performance practice’ revolution of recent years in evidence. However of course the genius of this music makes any superficial performance observations, intellectually and musicologically convincing, entirely gratuitous.
Domenico Orlando then joined Vilde Frang in the Bach Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor BWV 1060R. In this shared work as one of the soloists, he emerged for me as simply one of the greatest virtuosos on this instrument I have ever heard. The almost theatrical projection of his sound (he moved about a great deal, the instrument also in arcs) cascaded over us in waves of beauteous harmony. The dreamy Adagio was particularly affecting in its beautifully sculpted melodic arabesques. I was captivated by his extraordinary articulation and immaculate phrasing which gave such inner detailed polyphonic life to the work.
The Gewandhausorchester under Blomstedt really came into their own in the Symphony Nr. 3 A minor Op. 56 (The Scottish). Mendelssohn so loved in Britain, was originally inspired to compose this symphony when he visited the country first in 1829. After a series of successful musical engagements in London, Mendelssohn set off on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Karl Klingemann. Mendelssohn visited the ruins of Holyrood Chapel at highly romantic and historic Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where he wrote in a letter to his family:
‘In the deep twilight we went today to the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.’
- Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato
- Vivace non troppo
- Allegro vivacissimo — Allegro maestoso assai
Blomstedt extracted great inner life and detail, delicacy of feeling when required, dynamic variation from rich forte to delicate string pianissimo, the rhapsodic embracing of the power of Nature Mendelssohn adored in this island nation (‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ in the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). The energetic references to Scottish folk music, the ‘Scottish snap’ rhythm and the dance were energizing and inspired one to dance oneself. Although not programme music or a symphonic poem, the Allegro maestoso assai conclusion evoked the grandeur of the Scottish landscape, its immensity and monumentality, to anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit this bardic land of fierce yet beautiful emotion.
Sun 16th June 2019 18.00
G. B. Pergolesi Stabat mater (Ballet)
Steffi Lehmann (soprano), Anja Binkenstein (soprano), Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto), Martin Petzold (tenor), Dirk Schmidt (bass)
Choir of Leipzig Opera, Thomas Eitler-de Lint (preparation of the choir)
Children’s Choir of Leipzig Opera
Thilo Reinhardt (libretto), Paul Zoller (set design, costumes), Mario Schröder (choreography), direction: Christoph Gedschold
Sun 16th June 2019 22.30
Bach and Dresden
Bach versus Marchand
J. S. Bach: Fantasie a-Moll, BWV 922
J. S. Bach: Fuga, aus: Konzert C-Dur, BWV 1061a
Andreas Staier (harpsichord − J. S. Bach), Ton Koopman (harpsichord − L. Marchand),
PD Dr. Michael Maul (presentation)
This was a highly entertaining late night concert idea with two of the finest harpsichordists playing in the world today ‘fighting it out note for note, phrase for phrase’. Although this Bach – Marchand confrontation at the Dresden court never actually took place (Marchand fled in fear under cover of darkness back to Paris) the idea of a keyboard duel has had a long and distinguished history.
16th century St Mark’s in Venice witnessed the ‘Duel of Two Organs’ between Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Merulo in an improvisation competition. In 1709, Handel confronted Domenico Scarlatti in Rome – Handel’s patron, Cardinal Ottoboni, judged it a drawn contest with Handel awarded the organ laurels and Scarlatti those of the harpsichord. Mozart and Clementi competed in Vienna in 1781. Mozart won. It was decided ‘While Clementi had only art, Mozart had both art and taste’. Beethoven, that elemental force of Nature, opposed three powerful opponents – Joseph Wölfl, Josef Gelinek and Daniel Steibelt. He defeated all of them and continued to dominate Viennese musical life.
In the present ‘contest’ and as a lover of the French classical tradition, I found the Marchand suites fine indeed especially the noble Chaconne and also the elegant and graceful Bach French Suite No 5 in G minor BWV 816. However, an idiomatic and instinctive grasp of the intimacy, affectation, allure and charm of the French tradition escaped both these masters on occasion – a very personal conviction of mine as a lover of the music of Francois Couperin.
The entire concert was performed in a mood of great camaraderie and occasionally affected entertaining theatrical competitiveness. What a unique and splendid experience to hear two harpsichordists of such international stature playing together in such perfect unison dialogue, particularly the Bach double concerto in C-major in the version for two harpsichords without orchestra BWV 1061a. Quite wonderful.