Bachfest Leipzig ‘Bach, Court Compositeur’ 14 June – 23 June 2019 – Reviews

 


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 :

https://michael-moran.org/2019/01/23/divine-intervention/

All photo credits: Jens Schlüter
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Inaugural Concert June 14th  
Thomaskirche  17.00

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.

Bachfest

 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)

Bachfest

 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.

Eröffnung Bachfest Leipzig 2019

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.

June 14th
Nikolaikirche, 20.00

Bach and Berlin

J. S. Bach: Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079
J. S. Bach: Ouvertüre h-Moll, BWV 1067
Le Concert des Nations: Marc Hantaï (transverse flute) • Manfredo Kraemer (violin), David Plantier (violin), Balázs Máté (violoncello), Xavier Puertas (violone), Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord), direction: Jordi Savall (viola da gamba)
For me this was a serendipitous concert as only the day before I had come from Berlin where I visited one of my beloved spots in Europe, the palace, park and gardens of Sans Souci in Potsdam.  On 11 May 1727, Bach was received at the Stadtschloss (City Palace) by the Prussian King, composer and flautist, Frederick II ‘The Great’. At that time Bach’s son C.P.E Bach held a position as harpsichordist at the court. Frederick played Bach rather an austere tune and asked him to improvise a fugue upon it. As so often with Bach, his fertile musical genius transformed this ‘royal theme’ into a cycle of different solo and ensemble pieces. He named it A Musical Offering and dedicated it to Frederick upon publication. The motivations of Bach in this great intellectual construction are not entirely clear and may even had have harboured a religious intention concerning Frederick.
This was a magnificent performance of the work under the direction of Jordi Savall, one of the finest I have ever heard, particularly the penetrating solo harpsichord performance by Pierre Hantaï. This magnificent intellectual abstraction was mesmerizing in the fugal construction achieved by the ensemble. The labyrinthine texture of polyphonic voices was transparent and logically evolutionary. Such pure tonal and structural beauty was always movingly present in the presentation of these austere intellectual emotions.
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In the B minor Orchestral Suite, the transverse flautist Marc Hantaï was superb in his dominant instrumental role. The source is a partially autograph set of parts (Bach wrote out for flute and viola) from Leipzig in 1738–39. Rather nostalgically for me, as I live in Warsaw, the Polonaise is a stylization of the Polish Folk Song “Wezmę ja kontusz” (I’ll take my nobleman’s robe). The famous  Badinerie (meaning ‘a jest’ in French or a Scherzo in Italian) was brought off with a fine virtuoso flourish and panache.  As an encore the brilliant polymath Jordi Savall not unexpectedly directed the ensemble in an arrangement of a terribly familiar medieval folk song the name of which escapes me completely.
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The Music Room at Sans Souci in Potsdam with Frederick II’s flute in the glass case on top of an early Silbermann fortepiano. Was this perhaps the same instrument on which he gave Bach the immortal theme of A Musical Offering ?
15th June 2019  17.00 
 Kupfersaal
 »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)

J. S. Bach: Willst du dein Herz mir schenken, BWV 518
G. P. Telemann: Komm, o Schlaf, und lass mein Leid, aus: Germanicus (Oper)
J. S. Bach: Angenehmes Pleiß-Athen, aus: Erwählte Pleißenstadt, BWV 216a
J. S. Bach: Ich habe genung, BWV 82 (BC A 169b)
Instrumental works from the Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach

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.

This concert celebrated her as a professional soprano with a number of superb arias. Dr. Michael Maul presented anecdotes, letters and documents in a highly entertaining manner which lifted proceedings greatly onto a charmingly  informal plane. The soprano Nuria Rial was engagingly expressive, refined, subtle with the purest intonation in a soprano I have encountered for a long time. The entire recital by this tenderly eloquent, captivating voice and refined personality was deeply affecting. The support given by Café Zimmermann, especially by the harpsichordist and archlutenist was always understated, harmonically illuminating and never dominant. The flautist often had a highly reflective and sensitive counterpoint dialogue with the soprano. This recital took us into a world of civilized German salon refinement seldom encountered or envisaged in Bach’s grander religious conceptions. My increasingly completed picture of Bach the man is most welcome.
Bachfest
During the course of the festival weekends some concerts are streamed live (such as the one above) to the ‘Bach Stage’ in the Leipzig Market Square, where additional ‘alternative’ Bach events take place for the benefit of ordinary resident Leipzigers. A fine community democratic gesture I feel.
Bachfest
Mendelssohn at the Bach Festival
15th June 2019  20.00
Großes Concert
Kongresshalle, Großer Saal
J. S. Bach: Konzert E-Dur, BWV 1042
J. S. Bach: Konzert c-Moll, BWV 1060R
F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Symphony Nr. 3 A minor Op. 56, MWV N 18, (The Scottish)

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.

St Matthew passion
Opening page of Felix Mendelssohn’s autograph score of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

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.’

 

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The ruins of Holyrood Abbey “Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” Mendelssohn wrote

 

The premiere took place on 3 March 1842 in the Gewandhaus here in Leipzig.
The work is scored in four movements that are performed without breaks, embueing the symphony with a feeling of organic unity, yet maintaining a great range of emotional response. 
  1. Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato
  2. Vivace non troppo
  3. Adagio
  4. 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.

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“It is in pictures, ruins and natural surroundings that I find the most music,” Mendelssohn wrote. This is his sketch of Ben More, on the Isle of Mull
Sun 16th June 2019  18.00 
Leipzig Opera

Magnificat

J. S. Bach Magnificat BWV 243 (Ballet)

G. B. Pergolesi Stabat mater (Ballet)

Indian ragas

Steffi Lehmann (soprano), Anja Binkenstein (soprano), Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto), Martin Petzold (tenor), Dirk Schmidt (bass)

Leipzig Ballet

Choir of Leipzig Opera, Thomas Eitler-de Lint (preparation of the choir)

Children’s Choir of Leipzig Opera

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Indigo Masala

Thilo Reinhardt (libretto), Paul Zoller (set design, costumes), Mario Schröder (choreography), direction: Christoph Gedschold

An Opera Leipzig event
Magnificat 1
This was a fascinating, spectacularly accomplished and imaginative ballet. Unfortunately after some time I found the intensely physical choreography tiringly repetitive. The ideological conception behind the production is admirable but flawed in terms of musical and artistic conviction. However theatrically accomplished and ostentatious (certainly it was), I feel to secularize this profoundly Christian religious music and inspiration of Bach’s Magnificat (the earliest Marian hymn or Song of Mary), a misguided intention. I felt it should not be utilized as simple raw material to inspire a supremely athletic, purely physical transformation, with no theological element. The production was an inescapable, representative expression of the atheistic preoccupations of our day. None the worse for that, judging by the wildly enthusiastic audience reception at the close. It is arguably a positive development that the Leipzig Bach Festival is enhanced by outside injections of inspiration from other Leipzig institutions such as the Leipzig Opera, Leipzig ballet as well as the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
More to the point in this case, how can one possibly remove and justify the fervent religious inspiration of this profound Lutheran composer for purely visual physical entertainment? This is the Johann Sebastian Bach who wrote a cantata in Weimar in 1713 for the 51st birthday of William Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, entitled Everything with God and nothing without him BWV 1127.
The interaction achieved between the music of Bach and Pergolesi was instructive but attempting to meaningfully interweave this with music from a South Asian culture (India) is certainly a praiseworthy and laudable search for cross-cultural understanding. However I feel this attempted amalgam does a serious disservice to both social civilizations, making essentially superficial connections, as well as distorting for entertainment ends their highly evolved but supremely distinct musical cultures.
Magnificat 2

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Sun 16th June 2019  22.30 
Stadtbad Leipzig
Bach and Dresden
Bach versus Marchand
L. Marchand: Prélude – Gigue – Chaconne

 

J. S. Bach: Fantasie a-Moll, BWV 922

J. S. Bach: Fuga, aus: Konzert C-Dur, BWV 1061a

Movements from the Suit in G minor by L. Marchand
Suite in G Major, BWV 816, J. S. Bach

Andreas Staier (harpsichord − J. S. Bach), Ton Koopman (harpsichord − L. Marchand),

PD Dr. Michael Maul (presentation)

Bachfest

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.

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Bachfest
Mon 17th June 2019  14.00

Summary of my interview with Dr. Michael Maul, Artistic Director of the Bachfest

I was attracted to the idea of organizing this interview by the entertaining personality of Dr. Maul reading a rather theatrical presentation of letters and documents during the concert »Hof-Cantatrice« Anna Magdalena Wilcke-Bach (see above). An unusual personality trait for a musicologist in my experience! We spoke for an hour over iced coffee in the attractive Cafe Gloria opposite the great statue of J.S.Bach at the side of the Thomaskirche. Dr. Maul studied the modern violin and baroque violin before becoming a musicologist and emerging as a highly respected and honoured academic in Bach studies, the author of many papers and monographs. His PhD thesis examined Baroque Opera in Leipzig 1693-1720. I was also particularly interested in the labyrinthine mysteries of his paper on the influence of  Count Adam von Questerberg on the gestation of the B-minor Mass.

We initially discussed last year’s outstanding Kantaten-Ring. With some other music journalists I had spent a remarkable hour or more discussing Bach with Prof. Dr. Peter Wollny, the Director of the Bach Archive, during that extraordinary weekend. Both of us had spoken to people who had attended and most said that it was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, musical experience of their lives. https://michael-moran.org/2019/01/23/divine-intervention/ 

He mentioned how difficult it was years ago to persuade the Bach establishment that Baroque performance practice or ‘historically informed practice’ was the way forward. There are many Bach performances throughout the year in Leipzig but the annual Bachfest is the highlight. I mentioned the mainly elderly audience but he pointed out many young people come during the year when it is less expensive and also attend the market place events and other concerts which are free during the festival. He also mentioned how pleased he is that the festival is now co-operating with other eminent Leipzig cultural institutions such as the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig Opera and Leipzig Ballet.

We also spoke of the recent almost self-evident appointment of Dr. Ton Koopman, who replaced Sir John Eliot Gardiner as President of the Leipzig Bach Archive Foundation and of his eminent years as a scholar, performer and archivist. I remember so well his early career with harpsichord recitals in London in the so-called ‘Early Music’ revival during the incredibly exciting 1970s. At ruinous expense such was my passion for Bach, I commissioned my harpsichord from David Rubio, a copy of an eighteenth century Flemish instrument by Johannes Dulcken. I dearly remember those early inspiring exploratory years of Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, Bob von Asperen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood.

Naturally we spoke of future plans for the 2020 Bachfest which is thematically entitled BACH – We are a Family.

“It all started with the idea of holding a 2020 Bach Festival similar to the kind of celebration the much-ramified Bach family of musicians would once have held in Thuringia. Once a year, they met at a certain place to feast, sing and make music.

Today, the Bach family is a global one. All over the world, there are people who live out their love of Johann Sebastian Bach together – in Bach choirs and Bach societies. The oldest of all of these, the Neue Bachgesellschaft, will be celebrating its annual Bach Festival with us again in 2020.

But to turn our idea into a reality, we have also invited all the other ›family members‹ – that is, all the Bach associations around the globe – to Leipzig: more than 250. The response has been overwhelming. The 2020 Bach Festival is set to become the greatest ›family reunion‹ the global Bach community has ever held, and you are cordially invited to be part of it.”  wrote Dr. Michael Maul, the Artistic Director.

https://www.bachfestleipzig.de/en/bach-festival/bach-we-are-family-leipzig-bach-festival-2020

The 2021 Bachfest will be organised around compositions by various members of the Bach family.

On this highly optimistic, forward thinking and imaginative note we finished our delicious iced coffee (with cream and ice-cream) in the shadow of the statue of the great Cantor and concluded our interview.

Mon 17th June 2019  17.00 
Haus Leipzig
Bach and Dresden

Contest of the Gods

J. D. Heinichen La gara degli dei

J. S. Bach: Overture in D major BWV 1068

J. S. Bach: Geschwinde, geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde, BWV 201

Robin Johannsen (soprano), Miriam Feuersinger (soprano), Hanna Herfurtner (soprano), Julia Böhme (alto), Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto), Richard Resch (tenor), Patrick Grahl (tenor), Tobias Berndt (bass), Matthias Winckhler (bass),

La Folia Barockorchester, direction: Robin Peter Müller

Johann David Heinichen (1683 – 1729) was a German Baroque composer who brought the musical genius of Venice to the court of Augustus the Strong in Dresden.  So the choice of this work is most appropriate for ‘Bach, the Court Composer’. Both his father and himself attended the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He received organ and harpsichord lessons from Johann Kuhnau. He became a lawyer (as many musicians did – Goethe’s advice to budding poets was similar). He went later to Italy and spent seven years studying composition there, mainly in Venice. He achieved great success with two operas, Mario and Le passioni per troppo amore (1713).

Dresden in the year 1719 witnessed the opulently staged marriage between Prince Frederick Augustus II of Saxony to the Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria which took place on August 20 of that year in Vienna. The theme of these lavish festivities  were the planet deities Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, Diana, Mercury, Venus and Saturn. Opening this festival of the planets, the serenata La gara degli dei, composed by the then Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen. This extraordinary work, first performed on the feast of Apollo, was simply a preview of the festivities to come.

The music is heavily and not unexpectedly influenced by the composer’s years in Italy. The work is replete with extraordinary rhythms, thirteen marvelous and increasingly demanding virtuoso arias as well as bizarre sound effects. Originally the ‘Gods’ were suspended on a ‘cloud’ above the audience, the performance ending with a firework display. The work is almost entirely in C major apart from Mars who sings an aria in C minor. The music was often intended to reflect the character of the bridal couple.

The La Folia Barockorchester and all the singers under the direction of Robin Peter Müller were absolutely spectacular in this performance. What an outstanding period orchestra this is with an energy level and communicative emotional musical life far above the so-called ‘average’. Both soloists and orchestra brought fiery musical energy and theatrical commitment of a high order to each characteristic ‘God’ and their ‘personality’. I have neither the time nor the space to analyse individual performances but to be honest I was completely bowled over by a work and composer previously unknown to me. May I plead for a staged performance and recording soon with original seductively naive, eighteenth century Baroque stage apparatus and ‘business’.

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After the welcome interval (it is stiflingly hot in Leipzig just at the moment) I heard the finest, most breath-taking performance I have ever heard of the French influenced Bach Overture BWV 1068.  The driving forward energy of the dance, articulation, inner orchestral details, counterpoint and exciting tempo swept one along like an avalanche. This orchestra is unique in this motivic energy I felt, carrying one unresistant, like a river taken at the flood. Yet one did not feel the slightest rushed, the French style retained, a recognition of the inevitability in this energized manner of reading the score. A magnificent interpretation.

Finally a most amusing work by Bach, Geschwinde, geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde, BWV 201 (1729). With the Leipzig Collegium musicum, Bach often paid tribute to his patrons, the Saxon electoral family who had by now granted him the title Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer. In this cantata or  dramma per musica, an amusing setting of a song contest between Pan and Phoebus, Bach established himself as an advocate of ‘artful’  music as opposed to the music of ‘low entertainment’. Ovid in his Metamorphoses depicts a musical contest between the shepherd god Pan (master of the flute rather crudely sings an aria for ‘dancing, leaping’ in unrestrained style) and Phoebus Apollo a most lyrical and affecting aria expressing with longing his love of Hyacinth. The foolish King Midas selects Pan as the victor but the introduced figure of Momus, the god of rebuke. comments to him ‘You have yet more brothers like yourself / folly and unreason / would now be the neighbours of wisdom / people judge at random / and those who do so / all belong to your fraternity.’ This moral and musical lesson was performed with the greatest amusement and panache, the singer judges in T shirts bearing the mottoes ‘Pan for President’ and  ‘I ♥ Phoebus’ – a delightful conceit.

A highly enjoyable concert of music most of which was unfamiliar to me. Surely this educational and informative musical dimension is one of the greatest values of the Bach Leipzig Festival.

Mon 17th June 2019  20.00 
Thomaskirche
Bach and Weimar
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Thomaskirche , Leipzig

Bach meets Vivaldi

 A. Vivaldi: Konzert D-Dur, RV 208
J. S. Bach: Konzert C-Dur, BWV 594
A. Vivaldi: Konzert a-Moll, op. 3 Nr. 8, RV 522
J. S. Bach: Konzert a-Moll, BWV 593
A. Vivaldi: Konzert d-Moll, op. 3 Nr. 11, RV 565
J. S. Bach: Konzert d-Moll, BWV 596
A. Vivaldi: Konzert h-Moll, op. 3 Nr. 10, RV 580

Jörg Halubek (organ), Chouchane Siranossian (violin), Katharina Heutjer (violin), La Cetra Barockorchester Basel, direction: Andrea Marcon

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The modern organ in the Thomaskirche

Johann Sebastian was a young man of 23 when he moved from Mühlhausen to beautiful, forward-thinking, artistic and progressive Weimar. Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar was intensely interested in music. The twelve concertos from Antonio Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico’ graced the court from a visit the prince made to Amsterdam where he purchased them. Bach made various organ transcriptions of these Italian concertos for the organ.

In this concert we first heard the Violin concerto in D major named ‘Grosso Mogul’ with the brilliant, award-winning young French virtuoso of Armenian background, Chouchane Siranossian. The La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under Andrea Marcon gave her stylish and energetic support. This concerto is one of Vivaldi’s most virtuosic. There are various ‘oriental’ associations in the music as the Great Mogul of India Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was a most feared potentate. Untypically, Bach transcribed this concerto for organ into the key of C major. Throughout this concert of educational contrasts, it was instructive to hear how difficult it was for Bach to transcribe these works for such an unenvisioned keyboard instrument, fluctuating as the writing does between virtuoso solo passages for violin and orchestral tutti ritornellos. One can hear Bach’s brilliant solutions to knotty difficulties for the hands and feet to accomplish. The future influence on Bach of Italian music (say in the Italian Concerto) is clear.

Bachfest

Tue 18th June 2019  17.00 
Kongresshalle, Weißer Saal
Bach and Cöthen

A virtuoso dialogue

J. S. Bach: Sonate E-Dur, BWV 1016
J. S. Bach: Partita d-Moll, BWV 1004
J. S. Bach: Sonate h-Moll, BWV 1014
J. S. Bach: Toccata d-Moll, BWV 913
J. S. Bach: Sonate G-Dur, BWV 1019

Isabelle Faust (violin)

Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord − Artist in Residence)

The six (the magic number) sonatas for violin and harpsichord BWV 1014-1019 are outstanding works, early masterpieces in fact, based on the fashionable trio sonatas. They emerged for the composer’s sojourn in Köthen where many outstanding musicians performed. Certainly Bach exploited the virtuoso possibilities of both instruments in ‘dialogue’ to the maximum in these sonatas. Interestingly a two-manual harpsichord is essential for them. Bach traveled to Berlin to buy an instrument by the renowned maker Michael Mietke which may be connected to their composition..

Perhaps needless to say these two artists gave a remarkable account of these works. They appear to play in with beautiful symbiosis and musical understanding. The affecting melody of the divine Adagio ma non tanto from the E major sonata BWV 1016 was extraordinarily moving.

Isabelle Faust then gave a magnificently organic and structurally integrated performance of the Partita for unaccompanied violin in D minor BWV 1004. The closing Ciaconna was like a monumental sculpture that grew seamlessly from the previous movements – a great cathedral like Reims or Chartres rising triumphantly in sound. Kristian Bezuidenhout later gave us a splendidly expressive and virtuosic account of the fiendishly difficult Toccata in D minor BWV 913 for solo harpsichord. He managed to communicate a tremendously fluent, appropriate feeling of improvisation and drama to the work.

Bachfest

Tue 18th June 2019  20.00
Nikolaikirche
Bach and Weimar

Music at the French Court

 J. S. Bach: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61
G. P. Telemann: Deus, judicium tuum, TWV 7: 7
J. S. Bach: Overture in C major, BWV 1066
J. B. Lully: Te Deum, LWV 55

Gesine Adler (soprano), Susanne Langner (alto), Stefan Kunath (altus), Tobias Hunger (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass)

Collegium Vocale Leipzig

Merseburger Hofmusik, direction: Michael Schönheit

Unfortunately, there was a conflict in the festival programming which made a decision which concert to attend particularly tormenting. How to decide between a performance of The Art of Fugue and a programme that explored the influence of French music in Bach. As I have been immersed in the fête galant world of the sensibility of Antoine Watteau and Francois Couperin for many years, I decided against the magnificent intellectual labyrinth of the fugue to embrace the more hedonistic delights of the French influence on Bach.

Voltaire called the seventeenth century in Europe the century of Louis XIV. This Apollonian Bourbon used the fine arts, monumental architecture, landscaped formal gardens and superbly refined music to give France a supremacy and influence in culture and politics that she has never regained but is certainly recalled. The king supported his luminaries and creative people to an unprecedented degree which ‘elevated him not only above the heroes of his race or those of other peoples, but beyond the scope and boundaries of the mortal condition.’ Bach was born towards the end of the century (1685) at a time when the French organ school of Nicolas de Grigny and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert was exerting influence on the North German organ school of Bach’s youth and when engaged as a Court musician. He heard much Italian and French orchestral and harpsichord music (predominantly that of Francois Couperin) which influenced him greatly. But where Louis XIV used music to extend the power and political influence of his royal absolutism to the point of decadence at the end of his life, Bach wrote in a religious church music context (the cantatas) to pay homage to the glory, the power and the omnipotence of the Christian God.

In the first work on the programme Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland  (Now come, saviour of the gentiles) BWV 61 (1714) for the 1st Sunday in Advent, Bach combines French elements and that of North German music. The opening chorus is written in the style of a grand French Overture, a great favourite for Bach opening movements (the arrival of the Sun King was often announced with such noble, stately music). The Collegium Vocale Leipzig and Merseburger Hofmusik, directed by Michael Schönheit gave a fine account of this work.

This was followed by a Grand Motet by Telemann Deus , judicum tuum, TWV7:7 (1738). This composer was a far more cosmopolitan figure than Bach and had spent almost a year in Paris meeting members of the royal court orchestra, Jean-Philippe Rameau and impressing Parisian audiences with his own compositions. The Grand Motet was a French genre that gave a musical focus to Louis attending the Chapelle Royale for daily mass. Again a fine performance that showed a deep understanding and familiarity with French baroque performance practice.

jean-baptiste-lully-2
Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

The ‘Florentine’ Jean Baptiste Lully controlled every aspect of operatic composition and motets (he wrote twelve) in the France of Louis XIV. He was a strict disciplinarian over his singers and instrumentalists insisting on the highest musical performance standards, obsessively centralizing the final outcome. The Te Deum which we heard this evening was composed in 1677 for the christening of his son Louis, a godchild of Louis XIV. It is an ostentatious and noble work for two choirs with prominent declamatory parts for timpani and trumpets.

In a later performance on January 8, 1687 to celebrate the recovery of the king from an illness, he accidentally stabbed himself in the foot with his baton. The wound turned septic and gangrene set in. The inscription on his tomb reads ironically in part, considering the cause of his death : ‘God , who endowed him with these talents over all men of his century, gave him as a reward for the inimitable hymns which he has composed to his praise with a truly Christian patience during the acute pains of illness….’ With unconditional support from the Sun King, Lully had little to fear from rival composers or cabals and high level accusations against him, although there were many. The rivalry between the French chorus and ballet and the vocal art of the Italians (Louis XIV was a brilliant dancer and often took part in his own court spectacles). The idea of a reconciliation between the rival French and Italian styles of composition inspired many composers. Francois Couperin wrote a fine work entitled Les goûts réunis (The Styles Reunited).

This was a splendid opulent performance, full-blooded and trumpet and timpani resplendent in the Nikolaikirche with tremendous forward impetus and grandeur. One was justifiably placed in awe of the genius of Lully and his unquestioned hegemony over the orchestral, operatic and religious French music of the day.

Wed 19th June 2019  17.00 
Haus Leipzig
Bach and Cöthen

 Bach Dances

J. S. Bach: Partita G-Dur, BWV 829

J. S. Bach: Partita a-Moll, BWV 827

J. S. Bach: Partita B-Dur, BWV 825

J. S. Bach: Partita c-Moll, BWV 826

J. S. Bach: Partita D-Dur, BWV 828

J. S. Bach: Partita e-Moll, BWV 830

Sir András Schiff (piano)

This was one of the highlights of the festival for me. First of all a few words about the gestation of the incomparable Bach Partitas. Clearly, Bach had been influenced by French music in his composition of the French and English Suites (all begin with a prelude) and  all of which conventionally contain an allemande, courante and sarabande. However, in the orchestral suites there are various combinations of familiar movements but a smattering of unique inventions such as the forlane, badinerie and rejouissance. In the partitas, published as the Clavierübung Op.1, the introductory pieces are all different and possibly experimental – prelude, sinfonia, fantasia, overture, preambulum and toccata. In their central sections he adds all manner of new and established forms such as the gavotte, menuet, passepied, air, rondeau, burlesca and scherzo. Were they conceived with the harpsichord, clavichord, Cristofori  or Silbermann piano in mind ? Should this concern us at all ?

Despite the almost oppressive heat, Sir András Schiff gave one of these flawless performances that on every level one was left with nothing left to say. Surely being reduced to awed silence is an incontrovertible sign of greatness. His complete understanding of the various French dance forms and performance practice, varied, subtle articulation, intensely musical phrasing, affecting expressiveness, minimal or no use of the pedal, polyphonic grasp and clarity of voice, eloquent left hand counterpoint, nobility of overall structure and conception, variation in dynamics, an air of courtly grandeur, organic musical growth, inspiring energy, seamless legato and glorious cantabile, perfectly judged note duration, buoyant rhythmic variety, lightness and a velvet quality of touch never bordering on the harsh even in forte, incandescent tone……need I continue?

An utterly satisfying artistic and aesthetic experience on every conceivable level by one of the greatest pianists performing today and undoubtedly one of the greatest living Bach exponents on the pianoforte.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here

Shakespeare, Henry V

Bachfest

Bachfest

Wed 19th June 2019  20.00
Nikolaikirche

Passion

J. S. Bach: Präludium B minor, BWV 544/1

J. Gallus: Ecce quomodo moritur justus

 

J. S. Bach: Johannes-Passion, BWV 245, (Fassung 1725)

Solomon’s Knot, direction: Jonathan Sells

Opening the theme ‘Passion’ for this concert note a little historical significance. In Leipzig on 17 October 1727, there was a memorial service for the departed Christiane Eberhardine der Starke, Electress of Saxony and the Queen of Poland. Bach wrote the cantata described as ‘funeral music in Italian style’ Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, BWV 198. Bach played the organ at the ceremony, the piece performed may well have been this Prelude and Fugue in B minor. The associations of this key were considered melancholy and of plaintiff yearning in mood. It is a work of profound emotion.

 

The work was given a fine virtuoso performance on the impressive 19th century organ of the Nikolaikirche by Chad Kelley. The organ was built in 1862 by the Weissenfels organ builder Friedrich Ladegast and is the largest in Saxony. Kelley is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, was organ scholar and read music at Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in 2011 with double first-class honours.

The Motet by Jakob Handl (J. Gallus) Ecce quomodo moritur justus (See how the just dies) was performed by Bach as part of Good Friday Vespers at the principal churches in Leipzig 1724-1749. He often performed works by other composers during Passion week. This work was originally sung at Protestant burials in the 16th century as a funeral motet.

We tend to consider Bach’s Passions as competed, integrated and finished masterpieces. However, this is far from how he considered them at the time. Although he oversaw the performance of both the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions in Leipzig on many occasions they were rarely given in a similar form each time. There were many different arrangements of the St. John Passion given, assembled in ways we would find extraordinarily arbitrary but which were an obvious choice for the pragmatic Cantor given the prevailing circumstances of orchestral musicians available, choirs, singers and the place of worship. Even the censor may have been involved in toning down the graphic Baroque texts describing Christ’s suffering: Imagine, that his blood-bespattered body in every member is part of heaven above. We heard the 1724 version known as Version 1.

Solomon’s Knot under the direction of Jonathan Sells gave an engaging, even theatrically complex account of this Passion. Arias were directed at the ‘congregation’ almost operatically, as if attempting to engage in an authentic dialogue personally with every occupant of the Nikolaikirche, this in a manner that was both dramatic and highly emotional. A uniquely inclusive experience in my opinion as we were inexorably drawn into the anger and cruelty of the passion poetry and text. In choruses one felt one should be singing together with the choir in a state of piety. This even resulted in a feeling of religious deprivation as we did not so do.

Bachfest

Bachfest

And so this remarkable Bach pilgrimage to the ‘sacred places’ in Leipzig associated with this great composer, the greatest of harmonists, came to an end for me. The festival would however continue for another four days. As I left the Nikolaikirche and embraced the still Leipzig summer night for the last time this year, I could not help but feel a sense of loss, yet this emotion was mixed with the elation that I had fortunately managed to attend once again this remarkable affirmation of the human spiritual and creative spirit in the face of the dark side of human nature.

Next year the festival of 2020 will be devoted to the idea of the appreciation of Bach as a worldwide assemblage of acolytes. We are a FAMILY !  Yes, an international family of Bach choirs have been recruited from the farthest corners of the earth. They will assemble in Leipzig in June 2020 to once more scale the heights of immortal and shared inspirations of the greatest in music.  

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