BACHFEST LEIPZIG 2008
Bach und seine Söhne – Bach and his sons
13 June - 22 June 2008


Review

achfest Leipzig 2008 ran from 13 to 22 June with the theme ‘Bach and his sons’. Packing one hundred events into ten days, the lavish programme consisted not only of concerts held in historic venues where Bach himself had performed, but also organ tours to neighbouring towns, lectures by researchers, educational workshops and morning worship services featuring Bach’s cantatas. The theme, as a distinct thread in the programme, was set to shed light on the roles played by Bach’s sons during the transition from Baroque to the Classical period.

 

C.P.E Bach’s 1769 version of the St Matthew Passion presented an interesting pastiche of his father’s composition combined with his own movements exploring a wonderfully expressive idiom. An informative lecture by Ulrich Leisinger, editor of the recently-published volume of the Complete Editions of C.P.E. Bach, prepared the audience for the performance by Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and Ensemble conducted by Ivor Bolton. This was one of this year’s most polished performances in the Nikolaikirche, which is a very beautiful but difficult venue to perform in owing to its rich and complex acoustics.

 

Another feature in this thread were the works for viola da gamba by J.C. Bach and C.F. Abel, some of which, according to the programme, have not been heard in concert since they were composed. Although the compositions are rather unimaginative and predictable, Thomas Fritzsch (bass gamba) and Ad-El Shalev (harpsichord and fortepiano) injected the colours and dynamism needed to give the ensemble originality and spirit, successfully recreating the mood and atmosphere of the Bach-Abel concerts in the late 18th-century London.

 

Connected with the theme in a broader sense was Sir Roger Norrington's rendition of the development of the concert symphony. Performing from the balcony of the Thomaskirche, a venue which conceptually  sounded 'wrong' for the chosen genre, Norrington and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen traced how this genre evolved from J.S. Bach (represented by the Brandenburg Concerto no.1), C.P.E. Bach (Symphony in B minor, Wq 182/5), J.C. Bach (Symphony in G minor, op.6, no.6), to Mozart (Symphony in E-flat, K.543). Norrington explored how the balance, nuance and shaping could contribute to the eloquence of each piece, but unfortunately, for the Brandenburg Concerto, the positioning of musicians on the balcony was ineffective.

 

Balthasar-Neumann-Chor/ensemble in Nikolaikirche (Photos: Gert Mothes)

 

A few concerts whose concepts loosely followed the theme deserve special mention. The Freiburger BarockConsort led by Petra Müllejans gave a chamber music programme consisting of works by ‘Bach and Friends’ which included works by Buxtehude, Telemann, Buffardin and J.L. Krebs. Their imaginative approach coupled with exciting technical display brought out a variety of colours, textures and styles that make up each piece.

 

Another concert which focused on the Berlin Sing-Akademie featured not only the works of its founders Fasch and Zelter, but also Bach’s Cantata 102 and Mass in A major in the form in which they would have been known then. The very useful commentary of the programme by Uwe Wolf highlighted many essential issues and helped the audience to appreciate this unusual programme. The only disappointment were the performers—the Rheinische Kantorei and the Kleine Konzert conducted by Hermann Max, this year’s Bach Medal winner—who failed to present a polished performance in the Nikolaikirche.

 

Among the most memorable concerts of this year’s festival were those which lay outside the theme. The 2nd (1725) version of Bach’s St John Passion, performed by Collegium Vocale Gent and conducted by Daniel Reuss was an epitome of good work on diction and articulation. Chorales nos.14 “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” (ending Part I) and 22 “Durch dein  Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn” were exceptionally beautiful: every word was expressed with utmost clarity and placed within a carefully-crafted phrase. The handling of the turba was also exemplary: chorus no. 27b “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen…” was sung without the ‘shouting’ that one so frequently encounters in today’s performances of Bach and the sensible singing allowed the powerful emotion of the music to reach directly into the hearts of the listeners. The penultimate chorus, no. 39, was vocally effected as a panoramic scene, the sound as if appearing initially from a distant background, but again the forte was never forced even at the height of emotion. Among the soloists, who, unfortunately, were generally disappointing —a common concern of many live concerts today, it seems—Christoph Prégardien (tenor, evangelist) was the most reliable. However, his arias nos.13 “Zerschmettert mich” and 19 “Ach, windet euch nicht so, geplagte Seelen”—the ones that are unique to the 2nd version—were notably insecure: numerous pitch problems and forced singing at high register seem to explain why Bach removed these arias from the later versions. Both of these arias were technically too demanding and compositionally too complicated even for an accomplished singer such as Prégardien.

 

Norrington conducting in Thomaskirche (photo: Gert Mothes)

Another unforgettable occasion was the B-minor Mass, the work with which the Bachfest closes every year. This year it was performed by the RIAS Kammerchor with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. As in his first performance, the positioning of the soloists behind the orchestra on the balcony of the Thomaskirche raised some concern, as in this venue we normally see the soloists in front of the orchestra. Horns and trumpets were placed on the left and right wings respectively. The solo numbers were disappointing particularly in the Christe and Laudamus te. Nevertheless, there were many interesting and positive sides to this performance. The sonority of the opening four bars of the Kyrie, for instance, was magnificent. The ensuing fugal section was so clearly articulated and so beautifully shaped by the orchestra that it gave us real hope for magic later on. The solos aside, it was in the choral movements that Norrington shone, although not in the Et incarnatus est (which was too slow to sustain tension), or in the Crucifixus (which was too angry to convey the complexity of meanings in this pivotal movement). But the Confiteor was superb, with a beautifully controlled counterpoint and a real feeling for the expressive harmonies of the slow section towards the end, which made the connection to the powerful Expecto a very convincing one. Solemn beauty prevailed in the absolutely stunning final movement, Dona nobis pacem – the overall impression therefore being one of a deeply moving performance in which great dramatic moments were occasionally mixed with disappointment.

 

Regular attendees of the Bachfest Leipzig will have noticed that English translation was widely available this year: simultaneous interpreting was provided for all the musicological lectures and many of the concert programmes were translated. The courtesy and friendliness of the staff of the Bach-Archiv is never failing. Next year’s Bachfest Leipzig runs from 11 to 21 June on the theme ‘Bach – Mendelssohn – Reger’.

 

Yo Tomita


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