The musical legacy is alive:

The Leipzig Bach Festival 2005


© Aart van der Wal, May 2005


The main theme in this year's Bach Festival in Leipzig (29th April - 8th May) obviously linked the past, the present and the future, and rightly so pointed to Bach as reference, authority and way-pointer. One of the greatest designers of music, the architect of sound and structure, the creator of classical balance. Also the man with great and bold ideas, and exploding imagination, all embedded in perfect craftsmanship, invariably passionate to explore his genius and to combat fussy or vulgar opposition against his musical reign in particularly Leipzig, as cantor of St. Thomas' Church, but also in his capacity of Director Musices, a title covering all and nothing at the same time.

In his life and times hardly anyone could possibly have envisaged that Johann Sebastian Bach would still be a leading voice, even a way-pointer in the centuries to come, one of those exemplary men creating timeless works of art, in a rather hostile environment dominated by moderate or even indifferent minds.

Notwithstanding the great personal difficulties he had to endure in and beyond his art, and despite every day's delusion, Bach's music opposed social and aesthetic changes of paradigm, maintained its significance and consistently attracted admirers through the ages, here, there, and everywhere. Bach, the composer once committed to Leipzig, residing and working there, is recognized as one of the real leading voices in Western classical music in each part of the world, where his music is played in any imaginable fashion. Bach's music happens to flourish in a continuous and powerful process of everlasting discovery and rediscovery, and he is globally admired for just that. Additionally, Bach also happens to be one of the greatest demagogues ever, his music having attracted and yet attracting millions of people, lifting their spirits and spreading light, be it his secular or his religious output.

Thus it can hardly fail, a festival mainly devoted to the music of this great master, and moreover in the city where he created major part of his works, in Leipzig. But what makes a festival a good festival, or even a great one? What is needed for that? And did the Bach Festival meet the challenges?

First of all, even before its launch the Leipzig Bach Festival gained two indispensable advantages: the greatness of the music it is devoted to and the greatness of the city and the cultural heritage of Saxony as a whole. I am definitely not writing a tourist leaflet, but there can really be no question about those incredible places and sites of culture such as Weimar (Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Liszt), Wittenberg (Luther and Melanchton, to name just a few great minds), Dresden (the magnificent old inner city, the famous Semperopera and equally famous Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra), Rötha, Freiberg, Naumburg and so many other historical venues where the greatest organ builders of their time left their unsurpassed instruments for you to hear and to enjoy. I took many guided organ tours over there and I can just tell you that you will be surprised, overwhelmed and absorbed by the experience!

When you have ever attended an open-air music summer festival you will have noticed a variety of sounds that had nothing to do with the music. On the contrary, that was obstinately obstructive noise coming from plates, tins, glass, conversation, or children playing in the background. Beautiful grassy meadows, a tree here, flowers there, the scents of a vineyard, in short magnificent, picturesque surroundings, but you have to make up your mind prior to going to such an open-air concert, making a firm choice between either concentrated listening or having the music at your ears as the kind of wallpaper, the muzak you find at home in supermarkets, barbershops, at your doctor's place, or in your car driving at 80 miles per hour speed. That is no serious business when it comes to music!

The Leipzig Bach Festival is serious business, very serious even, with audiences exclusively focusing on the performances and being fully engaged with the music, many of them with the eyes closed or a score on their lap. In Leipzig there are no grassy meadows at all, but you will find yourself in those gorgeous historic settings where Bach once performed his own music, or where so many other great composers and musicians explored and tested their talents. Noblesse oblige so to speak.

No less than over 50 events in just 10 days and ranging from concerts and lectures to discussions, press meetings and excursions. Just too much for any individual, no one can be in two places at the same time, so you had to make your own selection, take your own pick. I felt a little bit lousy afterwards because I arrived when the Festival was already in full swing, and hearing the experts around me I noticed with much regret that I had missed more than just one jewel.

What were this festival's highlights from the perspective of the Bach absorbed visitor? Instantly after my arrival in Leipzig it started for me with Bach's The Art of Fugue BWV 18. by five members of Musica Antiqua Koeln in the Evangelic-Calvinist church.

Musica Antiqua Köln performing The Art of Fugue.. From left to right: Leon Berben (hardly visible), Reinhard Goebel, Margret Baumgartl, Karlheinz Steeb and Klaus-Dieter Brandt (Photo: Gert Mothes © Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

This was a brilliant and deeply felt performance by all means, with faultless intonation, masterly balanced and structured, full of wit and gravity in its counterpoint, and definitely not without zest.

The very next day, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his forces got the audience in St. Thomas' Church on their feet after the performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The voices of the Monteverdi Choir are not just chorus members but real soloists instead. This is one of the qualities they must demonstrate before being engaged. Thus, Gardiner had only two other soloists, the tenor Christoph Genz (evangelist) and the bass Dietrich Henschel (Jesus). The boys choir of St. Thomas had their cantus firmus role in the first part of the work, and they did very well, highly disciplined and with second-to-none expression. Great voices also elsewhere, Genz and Henschel no less than superior, and most excellent singing by the soloists (but less so in pronouncing the German text, still something to keel working on) graciously stepping down from their place in the choir. Gardiner's highly spirited conducting revealed new insights in his already known and highly esteemed ability to mould phrases and to create pin-point dynamics. Yes, there was the occasional feeling of overdriven drama, almost theatrical at some instances, but it was never sloppy, well-judged in tempo, and the work as a whole meticulously prepared and performed.

Eliot Gardiner rehearsing the St. Matthew Passion in St. Thomas' Church (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Later at the concert... (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)






In the Grand Auditorium of the Gewandhaus, violinist Christoph Poppen conducted the Munich Chamber Orchestra in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nr. 3 (BWV 1048) and Nr. 5 (BWV 1050), the Triple Concerto in A minor, BWV 1044, Webern's String Quartet in Poppe's own orchestral arrangement, and finally and to great acclaim Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks concerto. This was another concert not to be missed, but I missed it. Again feelings of regret after I had been told by those who should know that Poppen and his partners were on full wings, with the orchestra in great shape.

Christoph Poppen (solo violin), Henrik Wiese (flute), Richard Egarr (cembalo) and the Munich Chamber Orchestra in the Grand Auditorium of the Gewandhaus (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

For many musicians it is no less than contagious to make music together, as a group, inspiring and stimulating each other in either the rehearsing room or on the rostrum in front of an attentive audience. Others sail the opposite course and feel quite comfortable and at their best when being with solely the instrument as their partner. They may study in solitude, working it all out for and with themselves.

The cembalist Pierre Hantaï tuning his instrument moments before performing Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988 in the Old Townhall, one of those many historic venues in Leipzig (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Anton Sie plays in the Mendelssohn-House in an intimate atmosphere (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Also on her own: Angela Hewitt plays Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II at the Gewandhaus (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

More crowdy on the rostrum in St. Peter's church: The 5 singers of Amarcord are surrounded by the members of the Leipzig String Quartet in a performance of Steffen Schleiermacher's expansive Gloria II from "Time Bridges", one of those many contemporary works linked to Bach's music and being performed at the Bach Festival (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Was the best kept to the last? As always, Bach's Great Mass in B minor, BWV 232, brought the Bach Festival to its formal close, a tradition that should be cherished for many reasons, the most important one maybe that the work resembles greatest achievement in composing church music. The Great Mass is as unsurpassed as Bach's greatest of all his instrumental works, The Art of Fugue.

This time it was Herbert Blomstedt to make it all happen in St. Thomas' Church, conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Gewandhaus Chamber Choir, with such well-known soloists as Ruth Ziesak (soprano), Anna Larsson (alto), Christoph Genz (tenor) and Dietrich Henschel (bass).


Herbert Blomstedt conducts Bach's Great Mass in B minor (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Left: The Gewandhaus Chamber Choir, and in front the soloists (Anna Larsson, Ruth Ziesak, Christoph Genz and Dietrich Henschel). Right: a few members of the choir (Photo: Gert Mothes @ Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Genz and Henschel had already revealed their exquisite panache in the St. Matthew Passion, and now again they made the very best of their very difficult parts. Ziesak and Larsson performed in radiant voice, clearly textured, shaping their phrases beautifully, and keeping dynamics in the softer parts fully under control. Incidentally they were faced with the limits of their vocal range when high-voltage pressure still consistently progressed. More or less the same happened to the Chamber Choir, and specifically at high speed, when Blomstedt was pressing them to their upper limits, as in Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum performed in allegro assai tempo. This usually creates sudden lack of transparency and foggy textures caused by failing steadiness and difficulty in phrasing. The overall impression brings great splendour and impact and usually leaves the audience with the kind of perplexity after the final bars, as it happened that night as well. After the last sound waves had left the attic there was utter silence, until the conductor raised his hands confirming it was really over now. The applause was a storm, not a breeze, and lasted, and lasted, and lasted..