The Leipzig Bach Festival 2008:

Soli Deo Gloria


© Aart van der Wal, July 2008

Also published by MusicWeb International


Shortly after the foundation of the Neue Bachgesellschaft (New Bach Society) the first ever Bach Festival was launched in Berlin in 1900, mainly focusing on the propagation of Bach’s music and making it accessible to a broad public. Four years later, the festival came to Leipzig, and again in 1908, 1912 and 1916. Unfortunately, the progression of the First World War disrupted further plans until 1920 when the festival was back again, but again it was no everlasting joy. Nazi ideology gradually invaded the arts and took hold of the Festival’s cultural itinerary. The name was changed into the Bach-Händel-Schütz Feiern (Festival). In the late forties the political, military and social circumstances gravely deteriorated, while travel conditions in Europe and beyond severely worsened. Additionally, thousands of musicians were either expelled or lived in exile in non-occupied countries.

However, the festival became revitalised within one year of the collapse of Nazi Germany: the Bach Festwoche was more or less in place, albeit only with the greatest of efforts needed to run it under Soviet ruling. In 1950 the GDR rulers exploited the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, realising that one of the nation’s greatest cultural assets deserved international promotion. The introduction of a real Bach contest for performing musicians (Dmitri Shostakovich being one of the jury members), a variety of seminars and lectures, and an exhibition in Leipzig's Old Town Hall became an important stimulus, gradually contributing to the festival’s progressive popularity, even though the whole of Bach’s church music was sadly missing. For the GDR then, the party's 'religion' had to dominate, not the church’s. After "Die Wende"- the fall of the Berlin wall and the beginning of Germany's reunification from November 1989 onwards - the transformation affected all the arts. It took some time to restructure and to reorganise of course, along with the almost burning necessity to reform an otherwise hopelessly old fashioned political and social system. Massive transitions were taking place on all levels and in each and every imaginable direction.

Less than five years later the New Bach Society established the 69th Bach Festival for the first time in conjunction with the famous Bach Archive in Leipzig. Exactly ten years after the demolition of the Iron Curtain, the Bach Festival was not just as lively as ever, but it was now transferred into a solidly planned annual event, and even more importantly, was also solidly financed by the city and organised by the Bach Archive. The Leipzig Bach Festival was now a reality and would last.

On the other hand, the New Bach Society also decided to maintain its own annual festival tradition in various German cities, but in specific jubilee years (ending on 0 or 05) they joined the Bach Archive in organizing the event in Leipzig exclusively.

A fabulous tradition continues

There can be no question that the Leipzig Bach Festival has gradually grown into one of the major classical music festivals in Europe, significantly contributing the city's importance for all music. Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived and worked in Leipzig during major part of his life, from 1723 until his death in 1750 was clearly the greatest cantor of all time at the city's St. Thomaskirche. There he created most of his cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, the Magnificat, the Christmas Oratorio, the Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue, the Great Mass in B minor and so much more. There can surely be no more impressive artistic experience than to hear Bach's music in the two main churches where he had worked so strenuously: St. Thomas’s itself and the St. Nikolaikirche. But other historic venues are important too, like the Old Trading Bourse (Alte Handelsbörse) and the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus). In all of these, the baroque period comes very close to one’s heart, and not only in a musical sense. These sites are part of the great inherited tradition, and it is a most uplifting experience to be a part of it: people from all over the world gather to listen to baroque music played by first class performers and ensembles in a most fascinating baroque settings. We can almost imagine that we are actually in the period when those great baroque masterpieces were conceived, as if time is standing still for us.

The Festival theme: Bach and his sons

One of the Bach Archive’s musicologists, Dr. Andreas Glöckner, began the programme by lecturing on the current Festival’s theme: Bach and his sons:

Andreas Glöckner at one of his lectures in the Old Trading Bourse (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Johann Sebastian Bach apparently did not leave behind a written will, but he may have given rough instructions, after a serious illness in the fall of 1749, on how his musical estate was to be handled in the event of his death. The systematic distribution of his collected work was intended to preserve as much of it as possible and yet he still could not prevent some items from being scattered to a certain extent. In a letter to Bach’s later biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel in 1774, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach complained that the musical scores of Bach senior were getting hard to track down: “It is aggravating that my late father’s things should be floating around like this. I’m too old and too busy to round them up.” An assiduous keeper of his father’s legacy, Carl Philipp Emanuel tried – especially in his later years – to bring the scattered musical scores together as best as he could, with the aim of establishing a “Bachian Archive”. Although relatives were supportive of his efforts, much of the work could no longer be located and was irretrievably lost.

J S Bach had apparently divided up his music library with practical considerations in mind. According to Forkel, most of his sacred pieces were left to his oldest son, who was most likely to have a use for them as music director and organist at the Liebfrauenkirche (the Church of our Lady) in Halle. Wilhelm Friedemann had performed several of his father’s festival cantatas from 1746 onwards and had borrowed some of them from his father’s library for this purpose. They were usually performed in their unabridged versions with no changes to the texts; only the instrumentation was occasionally modified. That he possessed at least one of his father’s Passions is indicated by the account of his absurd parody of several arias from the “at least thirty-years-old” Passion oratorio “of a certain, distinguished double counterpointist.” We would love to know nowadays if this is a reference to the first Passion piece of his father from the year 1717. Accusations of plagiarism even resulted in a lawsuit in Halle, where the concert’s patron refused to pay Wilhelm Friedemann the agreed-upon fee of 100 talers. The files of the proceedings have unfortunately been lost.

Unlike his older brother, the younger Johann Christian Bach, who had just turned 15 in the fall of 1750, had virtually no use for his father’s sacred works. He left most of the manuscripts that came to him from his father’s estate to his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel before heading to Italy in the early summer of 1755. There he converted to Roman Catholicism – much to the dismay of his Protestant family – in order to take on a position as church musician. As organist at the cathedral of Milan he understandably could not perform his father's sacred works, indebted as they were to the Lutheran tradition. Carl Philipp Emanuel's early church compositions do betray the stylistic influence of his father, however.

Johann Christian's inheritance did include original manuscripts of organ and piano works. Anna Magdalena had actually written his name “Christel” (= Johann Christian) on some of them to certifying the claim to ownership of her youngest son, just in case of arguments. Nevertheless, disputes did emerge among the heirs when Bach senior gave Johann Christian three pianos, which his half-siblings later contested. Johann Christian evidently never emerged as an ambitious performer of his father’s piano works as it happens and according to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, Bach’s youngest son even admitted “that he was never able to play what his father set down.”

Compared to Johann Christian, the three years older Johann Christoph Friedrich must have been “the best player among the brothers, performing his father’s piano compositions with the most skill.” As a chamber musician and subsequent concertmaster of the Bückleburg court orchestra, he composed very few sacred works of his own but did occupy himself with his father’s choral compositions, possibly even lending a hand to his brother Philipp Emanuel in the latter’s first edition of the four-part Chorales (BWV 253-438), begun in 1765. Judging by his correspondence with Leipzig publisher Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf at least, he pursued the project with avid interest.

In a number of his own church compositions, Bach’s second-youngest son used choral movements from his father’s cantatas, Passions and oratorios, sometimes rather prominently. He inherited numerous sacred works from his father’s estate, and even performed some of them in later years. There are at least some strong indications of this in his handwritten notes on the scores of the cantatas “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen” BWV 81 and “Herr, gehe nicht ins gericht” BWV 105. When and where these performances took place remains uncertain, as there was no great interest in sacred music at the Bückleburg court, where on regular Sundays, figurate music was never or rarely performed.

The fact that Bach’s sacred works continued to be performed in Leipzig after his death (1750) is thanks to especially Anna Magdalena Bach, who was legally entitled to a third of his estate. Among other things, the widow inherited the performing parts of the so-called chorale cantata cycle, but gave them to the St. Thomas’s School in August 1750, in exchange for a six-month period of grace, i.e. permission to stay in the rectory for that time after her husband’s death. The manuscripts were intended for practical purposes and were indeed used by Bach’s successors in office, Gottlob Harrer and Johann Friedrich Doles, for a number of performances – perhaps even more often than can be verified from the visible records. According to some historical sources, Doles is said to have performed three of Bach’s Passions. Two of the three pieces, however, were erroneously attributed to Bach however but it is possible that the early version to his Passion According to St. Matthew BWV 244b was performed in Leipzig around 1756. Even before Doles took over the cantorship at St. Thomas’s Church, Prefect General Karl Friedrich Barth had “long administered” the cantorship – as he expressively pointed out in a subsequent application letter – performing at least 15 of Bach’s chorale cantatas as interim cantor and organist.

  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (copper gravure ca. 1770 by Johann Heinrich Lips)
  Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832)

The most prominent church piece from his father’s estate, the Credo from the Great Mass in B minor, was performed, not in a church service, but in one of Hamburg’s public concerts. The spectacular performance on April 9, 1786 made the headlines. The “Staats-und Gelehrte Zeitung des Hamburgischen unpartheyischen Correspondenten” newspaper, for instance, wrote on April 11 that the immortal Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition was “one of the most magnificent pieces of music... ever heard.” The performance undoubtedly helped spark off the Bach preservation movement that began in the early 19th century. Large parts of the Mass were performed in Berlin and Frankfurt am Main between 1811 and 1815, as well as in 1827 and 1828. As early as 1811, Carl Friedrich Zelter wrote that it was “the greatest musical work of art … the world has ever seen.”

Zelter was the driving force of an initial large-scale Bach revival in the following years, performing in full or in part, around 100 of Bach’s cantatas and many instrumental works, in addition to the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, at the Friday recitals of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. He thereby continued a tradition which had begun in Berlin long before 1800 and which was closely tied to the activities of musicians like Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Johann Friedrich Hering and Christian Friedrich Carl Fasch.    

Invention creates invention

They were the main ingredients of the current festival’s program: the works by the Bach family of composers and musicians, partly from the transitional period from Baroque to Classicism. No other family contributed so much and so diligently to the musical history of Europe or was so heavily involved on such high musical levels in almost any genre, be they in courts, churches or municipalities. The Saxon Academy of Science is now – at last! - preparing an index of the complete works of all members of this Bach family. The first two volumes contain works by Johann Christoph Friedrich (edited by Ulrich Leisinger) and Wilhelm Friedemann (edited by Peter Wollny).

Another focal point of interest was the music created by same or later generations of composers, where they referred to Johann Sebastian Bach as their great contemporary or predecessor. To quote Shostakovich: “Bach’s music is the most supreme pinnacle of the art of music in this world.” And: “His music is truly contemporary even in our day.” An we know of another great composer of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky, who usually started his working day by playing Bach on his piano.

This year’s festival program could not have been better drafted, ranging from a great number of sacred and secular works to intimate chamber and solo music, a substantial part of which is either rarely heard or even not at all. For instance, I cannot recall any live performance of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or the ingenious pieces for viola da gamba by Johann Christian Bach. Other fine examples: Fasch’s Mass for 16 voices, Zelter’s “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and “Im Flammen nahet Gott”, Zelenka’s and Hasse’s Miserere in C minor, or the pasticcio “Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt” by the combined efforts of Graun, Telemann and Bach.

An extra series of commissioned compositions (a Festival initiative) also took us, for instance, to the “Fantasia on an Arioso by JS B(ach)”, a piece written by Friedrich Goldmann, inspired by an arioso from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Other contemporary compositions and performances too carried a mix of Bach’s musical fundamentals and sparkling jazz sounds, like the ever exciting Jacques Loussier Trio. They all proved – sometimes just sounding at random - that invention creates invention.

Jazz at the Parkbühne: the Jacques Loussier Trio (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Making choices.

The overall program was so diversified and extensive, that is was impossible to attend all concerts and events; no-one can be in two places at the same time. Additionally, choices were often difficult to make between for example a very promising performance and a full day expert guided tour somewhere in Saxony under the Bach Archive’s patronage. And not everyone, me included, could possibly be present from day one (Saturday, June 14) for the opening concert in St. Thomas’s Church, with Daniel Reuss conducting the Collegium Vocale Gent in the 1725 ediition of Bach’s St. John Passion, with Christoph Prégardien (Evangelist and tenor arias), Michael Volle (Jesus), Hana Blazíkova (soprano), Damien Guillon (altus) and Peter Kooij (Pilatus and bass arias). Robert Schumann wrote on 2nd April 1849 in a letter to Georg Dietrich Otten about this work: “Do you know Bach’s St. John Passion, the ‘little’ one, as it is known? Doubtless you do! But don’t you find it so much bolder, more powerful, more poetic than that according to the Gospel of St. Matthew?” Whether or not Reuss proved the point, his performance was not only lauded in the local newspapers, but also highly praised in the streets and coffee houses for its great textual transparency, zest and structural insight. I heard almost everywhere that it had been a real gem in every aspect. Yes, I felt remorse, I should have arrived on the 14th, instead of the 17th, but on the other hand, I could look forward to the many jewels still to come!

Daniel Reuss conducts the Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's St. John Passion in St. Thomas' Church
(© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

The first jewel: a miraculous pasticcio in St. Thomas’s Church

Carl Heinrich Graun composed the passion cantata “Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld” in Brunswick (Braunschweig) between 1725 and 1735. The work – also known as Graun’s “little passion” – was quite popular in those days, as numerous copies of the score were passed on, even far and wide in the 18th century. A copy belonged to Johann Christoph Altnickol, which was later acquired by his brother-in-law Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who finally listed it in his estate in 1790 as “A Passion by C.H. Graun, with splendid 4 and 5 part chorales and fugues. Full score.”

The American scholar John W. Grubbs studied the score in 1965 and found that this was definitely not the original version of Graun’s cantata but a real pasticcio, with added movements by other composers. Questions were raised about the author(s) of the arrangement. In total 11 movements had been added, and in accordance with the customary church services in Leipzig it was laid out in two parts. The unknown arranger had used the Palm Sunday cantata “Wer ist der, so von Edom kömmt” by Georg Philipp Telemann (TWV 1:1585) as the prologue (aka exordium). The transition from the introduction to the Passion’s action was constructed from the chorale “Christus, der uns selig macht”, which also stemmed from Telemann’s cantata.

The second part contains nine movements by other composers, including two or three by Johann Sebastian Bach, starting with the massive chorale chorus from his cantata “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” BWV 127, but now transposed from the original F major to E flat major, and followed by a bass aria of unknown authorship (although its style definitely points to Bach, as is the case with the homogenous chorale movements). Two or three of the additional movements were clearly composed by Bach, while the contributions to the score by his pupil and son-in-law Altnickol reveal that the pasticcio version itself does goes back to Bach directly, or at least to his Leipzig circle.

The scale of Bach’s participation in the creation of the final score may be questioned, but the work gives us at least a few hints to one of his lost Passions, and most probably his last one, at any rate composed after 1733. The chorale chorus “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott” is not a copy of the autograph score of BWV 127, but from a strongly revised version which itself can also have been only written by Bach himself. In this form the movement could have been taken from the missing lost Passion, from which the bass arioso “So heb ich den meine Auge sehnlich auf” was presumably “borrowed”. As for the libretto's form, the vocal part – accompanied by two unidentified instruments and continuo – recalls the tenor accompaniment in the St. Matthew Passion “O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz”. Whether or not Bach’s librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici (alias Picander) had any hand in it needs further research.

Bach might also have taken part in the arrangement of the motet type chorus “Der Gerechte kommt um”. The instrumental accompaniment resembles close parallels with the chorale chorus “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” BWV 118. In any case, the working model adopted here comes close to Bach’s arrangements of works by other composers such as Johann Kaspar Kerll and Antonio Caldara.

Setting the musicological question marks aside, conductor David Timm led an exuberant performance with lots of drama on Tuesday, June 17, in St. Thomas’s Church, but also conducted with really amazing elegance and stylistic empathy. There were many delights to be discovered in this illuminating score, fiercely paced and accented, with crystal clear flutes and oboes and with the quite impressive and opulent sonorities of bassoon and double bass almost absorbing the spacious acoustic church setting. The highly spirited choral contributions of the Cantores Lipsiensis made the most out of the marvelous subtleties incorporated in this splendid and very colourful work. The vocal soloists (Gesine Adler – soprano, Susanne Krumbiegel – alto, Martin Petzhold – tenor and Gotthold Schwarz – bass) showed exquisite refinement, perfect musical judgement and great textual allure. The Pauliner Barockensemble excelled in equally inspired contributions, with their light, fresh, supple and secure tone. In short a most convincing performance.

David Timm rehearses "Wer ist der, so vom Edom kömmt" from the cembalo in St. Thomas' Church
(© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

A Cantata feast:  Bach and Telemann in St. Nikolai's Church

Bach’s chorale cantatas belong for the greater part to the second Leipzig cycle. In most of these the chorale verses only figure in the opening and closing chorales; the recitatives and arias in between serve as a free exposition of the chorale verses. Although the sacred cantatas were written for either the protestant church service or for specific liturgical events, each and every one of them holds its own unique character, far from the routine production that one would expect under the circumstances in which Bach had to produce a cantata for every week (apart from the previously composed cantatas which he reused or adapted to suite the purpose). A good example is the cantata which opened this concert: “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott” BWV 101 for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, drafted for the performance in St. Thomas’s Church on August 13, 1724. The vocal parts of the great opening chorale are treated in the style of a chorale motet, with anticipating imitations in the lower parts and with the cantus firmus line in long stretched notes in the soprano voices. The brief orchestral accompaniment is dominated by constantly recurring, insistent short motifs which are so typical of Bach’s composing style. Another feature are the clustered dissonances in moments of great distress, as at “grosse Not” (“dire need”), a strong plea for salvation which cannot be missed.

The next work, Telemann’s sacred cantata “Herr, strafe mich nicht in deinem Zorn” TWV 1:771, is rarely heard in public. The cantata was composed for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity and performed in Hamburg for the first time in 1723. So it dates from the same period as Bach’s cantata BWV 101, but the differences are nevertheless striking. Before Telemann left Frankfurt Main in 1721 for Hamburg to take up the position of cantor and music director of the city’s principal churches, he had made the request to retain his citizenship of Frankfurt, committing himself in return to send new music to Frankfurt regularly, as is the case with this cantata, first performed there in 1724. In contrast to Bach’s cantata, Telemann opted for an introductory sinfonia, with the first part of the opening psalm text ishaped as an arioso duet for alto and tenor before the choir and the full orchestra participates in a quick fugue (“Eile mir beizustehen”, “Hasten to help me”). The full orchestra only returns in the simple but trumpet-heightened final chorale, just after the cantata reaches its climax in the third aria, in which the bass voice is supported by an unconventionally drafted orchestral accompaniment, which clearly emphasises Telemann’s great talents as a composer.

Even more rarely heard are the Misereres in C minor by Jan Dismas Zelenka and Johann Adolph Hasse, both works being associated with the Dresden Catholic court. The structures of the two settings are, however, basically different. Hasse composed his Miserere, a setting of an earlier Venetian arrangement for women’s voices only, in the customary manner as a ‘number psalm’, comprising a series of independent movements, unlike Zelenka who grouped all psalm verses into one single movement. Only the subsequent doxology “Gloria patri” is subdivided into individual movements and separated from the psalm text. Compared to Hasse’s work, Zelenka’s setting is more imaginative and expressive, but it was good to hear both works in an excellent live performance like this.

The last work on the program, Bach’s sacred cantata “Herr, gehe nicht ins gericht” BWV 105 for the ninth Sunday after Trinity was an excellent choice in terms of formal and expressive contrasts. It is one of Bach’s most peculiar cantatas, as is shown in the soprano aria “Wir zittern und wanken der Sünder Gedanken”, without any supporting bass fundamental, symbolizing that the sinner lacks stable ground. Both violins play a persistent tremolo throughout the movement, expressing the trembling (“zittern”), above which the two responding melodic lines of the soprano and oboe waver (“wanken”), further enhanced by long intervals and colourful register changes. At the same time, strange harmonies pop up, especially at the word “Folter” (torment), embedded in major and minor seconds. The closing chorale with trembling tremolo string parts is also quite unusual. Here, Bach refers to the previously heard soprano aria. However, during its further course the ‘trembling’ diminishes and finally come to rest completely.

The lofty splendor of the choral singing by the Dresden Chamber Choir and the orchestral playing by the Dresden Baroque Orchestra in tight focus made an overwhelming impression. A great compliment is also due to the vocal soloists (Anna Prohaska – soprano, Susanne Langner – alto, Hans Jörg Mammel – tenor and Henryk Böhm – baritone) for their profoundly felt treatments of the text, well characterized singing and meticulous articulation. Hans-Christoph Rademann’s conducting was another gem, with much attention to orchestral and vocal balancing, crystal clear textures and fine dynamic shading. The mystical, meditative nature of both Misereres was superbly caught. I was also present at the rehearsal sessions and noticed Rademann handling the spacious but recessed acoustics of St. Nikolai most intelligently, resulting in a bright, sharply defined sound picture that brought out vivid transparent lines in the multiple vocal and instrumental parts. The entire program on Wednesday, June 18 was recorded by MDR for broadcast on July 26.

Cantata feast in St. Nikolai's Church: Hans-Christoph Rademann leads the Dresden Chamber Choir and the Dresden Baroque Orchestra (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Sir Roger Norrington's first concert in St. Thomas's Church: Bach and his sons

The program on Thursday, June 19th offered a mix of traditional and daring works: Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto in F major BWV 1046 and Mozart’s Symphony in E flat major KV 543 as the cornerstones, and in between C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony in B minor Wq 182 No 5 and J.Chr. Bach’s Symphony in G minor Op 6 No 6. It was all about historical perspective: from Bach’s genial conventionality to C.P.E Bach’s almost revolutionary break-through with his daring symphonies. At the end of the same spectrum stands Mozart’s KV 543, the first work of his final symphonic tryptich.

In the beginning of the 18th century the sinfonia or symphony was still the short three-movement piece played as an introduction to a longer Italian vocal work. The usual pattern was fast-slow-fast. Around 1720 the genre began to emancipate itself and to become an independent instrumental piece. Half a century later it had reached the status of the most important musical forms on the concert scene. Norrington’s choice therefore, was all in all a very logical one.

At the very start of the concert the first of the six virtuoso pieces which Bach wrote in 1721 for the margrave Christian Ludwig von Brandenburg, did not sit well. Bach’s intention to have the instruments (two horns, three oboes, bassoon, piccolo violin, strings and basso continuo) competing with each other was not adequately picked up by Norrington and his team, resulting in uninspired back and forth music making, as if they did not grasp the basic idea behind it. The musicians (standing instead of seating, as they must have been in those days of the first half of the 18th century) might have been faced with both the spacious and recessed acoustic characteristics of St. Thomas’s Church, and the more so in a full house, but one of the best European chamber orchestras (the German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen) should nevertheless have been able to overcome this difficulty. Their performance was blandly lackluster and that was about all to be said of it.

Sir Roger Norrington and the German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen in St. Thomas' Church with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 1 (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Things worked much better in the symphonies in B and G minor. Polish and brilliance suddenly returned, with a full-bodied sound combined with suave grace, the many syncopations accenting the dissonant clashes. The typical push-pull discourse came off very well, with a host of wondrous felicities to be enjoyed. The carefully built up tensions and contrasts, the sharply defined rhythms and the bouncy energy were perfectly tailored in fiercely brilliant sound. Incidentally, juicy thunderstorms ran through the entire orchestra, as in the final Allegro molto of the G minor symphony. The textual musical conflicts between Bach and his sons could not have been presented in any better or more convincing way. One might argue that Norrington – and with him Harnoncourt for that matter – tends to exaggerate accents and dynamics, occasionally pushing the music in a kind of overdrive mode, but with such hand-in-glove ensemble-playing it made an almost breathtaking impression. And let us be frank: in a live performance more risks may be taken than in a recording session, often with astonishing results.

The performance of Mozart’s great symphony in E flat definitely put the crown on the previous jewels. We got it all, from the highly sensitive and affective phrasing and the splendid lift in the thematic development to the most beautifully contoured woodwinds and most distinctive string playing, consistently well balanced, with the tremendous energy in this music perfectly laid out. As expected, Norrington also made most of the merciless dissonances in the slow introduction. The tensions on the rostrum must also have touched the audience: no cough, no paper rustling, no other obtrusive noises killed the utter concentration. After the concert had ended the cheers broke lose. Norrington and the orchestra took it with their biggest smile ever. Of course!

... rehearsing Mozart's Symphony No 39 KV 543 in St. Thomas' Church (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

A thrilling performance by the Ensemble Raccanto in the Old Town Hall

First of all, the Old Town Hall (“Altes Rathaus”) is a place to cherish. It is just one of those many impressive baroque venues in Leipzig and Saxony that makes a visit there so rewarding in itself. But when a concert is played there too, as it was on that late Thursday night, June 19th, there is really nothing more that one could wish for

The Ensemble Raccanto was founded in 2005, as the fruitful outcome of the close co-operation between organist and cembalist Robert Schröter and the countertenor Andreas Pehl. They prefer to make music on basis of special themes ike “A musical bird cage” with baroque music rooted in the animal world or “Singing geography, a trip through Europe”, when the ensemble members show themselves as story tellers (“raccanto”) and singers (“cantare”), their goal being to bring ancient music closer to the heart. The ensemble also writes specific arrangements for their own use, a well-known practice in the baroque period. Last year the first CD “Il Sassone” was released with works by a.o. Hasse.

Their appearance in the Old Town Hall offered a mix of two very well known pieces: Bach’s sacred cantata “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” BWV 170, and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater RV 621, together with two much less familiar works: Hasse’s “Aurae placidae spirate” and Melchior Hoffmann’s Symphony in F minor. Altogether a fascinating sample-card of the ensemble’s musical and technical skills, helped by the excellent acoustics of the modestly sized “Festsaal” (festivities hall). The countertenor’s voice proved to be in excellent shape, but his musical intelligence really swept everybody away, demonstrating flair, refinement and eloquence in his singing. Arrestingly crisp playing, with sensitive phrasing balanced dynamics, and imaginative instrumental colouring further emphasized the virtues of both the Raccanto and the small hall. One could easily pick up numerous details in the strings (two violins, viola, violoncello and violone) and the woodwinds (bassoon, oboe and oboe d’amore). The silvery sound of the little organ was a delight on itself.

The Cuarteto Casals in the Hall of Justice  

The Madrid based Casals Quartet was established in 1997 and quickly got worldwide recognition after winning a great number of awards in Britain, Germany and Spain. They soon went global, with appearances in all main concert halls all over the world. Those who have listened to their CDs and live performances are familiar with the quartet’s powerful lyricism and diversified string tone. But there is much more, like their enchanting naturalness and sweetness of tone, unrestrained clarity; in short the cumulative impact of their interpretations and communicative powers. These are definitely not musicians who still have to find their way in the classic, romantic or contemporary repertoire. As soon as they start to play, the music instantly catches fire. They build musical ideas with great effect, the rubati are well measured, with hardly any portamento to underline expressiveness. They let the music speak, which leaves out mannerisms or self indulgence. There is always a discernible sense of proportion, a great variety in sonority and the full understanding of the tonal implications as part of the music’s structure. It all sounds heart rendingly spontaneous, but must have been meticulously prepared.

The Cuarteto Casals in the Hall of Justice (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

The program on Friday, June 20, in the most impressive but uncomfortably hot court-room of the “Bundesverwaltungsgericht” (Hall of Justice) was carefully chosen: Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” in C minor D 703 (played without the slow movement’s 14 bars which Schubert abruptly broke off), Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor Op 13 and finally, after the interval, the last of Beethoven’s three Rasumowsky Quartets, in C major Op 59 No 3. Each and every work was presented to striking effect, a demonstration of sheer brilliance and deep insight in the meaning and purpose of these great chamber works. The perfectly integrated themes in the “Quartettsatz” and their almost violent progression, or the effortless delivery of Mendelssohn’s virtuoso string writing, or the straightforward pulse and daring dynamics in the Beethoven were dressed in most colourful jackets, the slow movements getting under the skin. Moreover, the excellent acoustics and the consequential sharp sound definition contributed considerably to one of the best live performances of these quartets I had ever heard. Very compelling indeed, in terms of technical supremacy and musical insight.

A quite different St. Matthew Passion in St. Nikolai's Church

On November 3, 1767 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (already 53 at that time) must have felt extremely happy: he finally got the job of music director of the five main churches in Hamburg and cantor of the Johnanneum school, as the successor to his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann. At last, Bach’s second-eldest son could get out of the suffocating court of Frederick the Second of Prussia, where he served as a low-paid harpsichordist. In Hamburg he could spread out his wings, take up a wide range of musical activities and compose and conduct sacred and figurative music for all kinds of occasions. This is what he wanted so much and what he finally got. His previous attempts to leave his post at the court had all failed. In 1750 he did not get the position of cantor at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig as a direct successor after his father's death (who had died that same year), aand he also failed to get that post again 1755, after Harrer’s death. He was equally unsuccessful in Zittau, in 1753.

Prior to his arrival in Hamburg he asked many questions od Telemann’s grandson Georg Michael, at that time together with the singer Schieferlein, the interim music director of church music in Hamburg. He wanted to know from him whether a Passion was performed there every year, and when. If so, was it performed in the traditional way, with the Evangelist or other persona, or was it arranged as a kind of oratorio, with reflections in the manner of Ramler’s Passion music? On how many singers and instrumentalist could he reckon with in those churches? Were all the customary instruments available? Etc.

Alas, Georg Michael Telemann’s reply has not been preserved, but we know that in Hamburg’s five main churches Passions were performed in the traditional manner, with the Evangelist (the oratorio Passion), on the Sundays before Easter. In the secondary churches Passions could be either oratorio Passions or Passion oratorios in the style of Ramler’s “Tod Jesu”. The annual oratorio Passion performances followed the four-year cycle as per the Bible’s gospel sequence (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

At the end of March 1768 Carl Philipp finally arrived in Hamburg. It was too late to organize and conduct that year’s Passion (St. Luke was on the desks this time). Georg Michael Telemann took over and conducted one of his grandfather’s St. Luke Passions in the various churches instead. The following year the St. John Passion would have to be performed, but Bach broke the sequence and started his series in Hamburg with a newly composed St. Matthew Passion (eventually, he would conduct a total of 21 Passions there).

C.P.E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passions are based on three different types of text. The basic libretto consists of the Bible verses from Matthew (26 v. 36 to 27 v. 50 and are therefore shorter than the text as used by J.S. Bach, i.e. Matthew 26 v. 1 to 27 v. 66). The second type are the chorale texts, which are taken from the “Neu-vermehrtes Hamburgisches Gesangbuch” hymnal. Carl Philipp notated the four-part chorales without the text but added the respective number and verse from the hymnal in the 1766 edition, just to facilitate the copyists of the various parts. The third textual layer comprised the madrigal texts of the choruses, arias and ariosi compiled specifically for each Passion. These were conceived – with only one exception – by Anna Luise Karsch (it is not clear whether the at that time highly esteemed poetess, who lived in Berlin and was acquainted with Johann Christian, delivered the text only to him). The text of the aria “Wende dich, zu meinem Schmerz” was written by Johann Joachim Eschenburg and Telemann had already used it for his St. Luke Passion in 1764).

As with all of CPE Bach's further Passions, the 1769 Passion (H 782 in the work catalogue) is in fact a compilation (pasticcio). Carl Philipp took pieces from other works and various composers to create a new entity, although a large part is originally his. It is true, however, that the chorales, most of the turba choruses and the chorale that concludes the Passion are his father’s, whereas one turba chorus (“Weissage uns”) stems from a St. Mark Passion by Homilius. Additionally, the Bible text recitatives are very strongly linked with those in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. On the other hand, Carl Philipp drafted all the madrigal movements himself and apart from the first chorus “Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit” (a clear rearrangement of the “Et misericordias” from his Magnificat) they are all new compositions.

Although Carl Philipp composed his St. Matthew Passion (it lasts about 100 minutes) specifically for the church performances in Hamburg he presumably did not have the slightest idea at that time that Passion performances as part of the church service were not supposed to take more than an hour. He followed this rule in his later Passions.

Nevertheless, this Passion is much smaller compared to his father’s, and not only in terms of length. It has no vocal or instrumental double chorus, but is drafted as a single-chorus piece (in the case of J.S. Bach’s dual turba choruses in his St. Matthew Passion, such as “Der du den Tempel” and “Andern hat er geholfen”, Carl Philipp got around it by having chorus I played by the instrumentalist ensemble). Also, he had only eight singers and sixteen to eighteen instrumentalists at his disposal.

Carl Philipp’s extended use of the pasticcio model raises questions about the originality of his Passion compositions. However, it needs to be emphasised that each one of them maintains its own original character, mostly because he always substituted the madrigal movements in any new Passion with new ones he had drafted. No Passion was just plainly repeated from one year to the next. Unlike the twenty subsequent Passions, which were only performed in their respective years, the movements from the 1769 Passion lived on in his Passion Cantata Wq 233/H 766, which, unlike the 1769 Passion, was performed for many years in and far beyond Hamburg. This music, solely composed by Carl Philipp, was one of the most widely distributed and most frequently performed of all his works during his lifetime, perhaps because in the second half of the 18th century, oratorio Passions were generally considered antiquated and obsolete, while Passion oratorios enjoyed much great popularity. It is no coincidence that with the posthumous performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1789 (Carl Philipp had died the previous year), the tradition of oratorio Passions also came to an end in Hamburg.

The glowing performance in St. Nikolai’s Church on Friday evening, June 20, reflected dramatic theatre and musical beauty, with all those undertones from which the also musically genetic connection between the father and the son clearly emerged. The Evangelist, the emotionally driven tenor Julian Podger, had to work himself through his role in almost overtime fashion (he has much more to say than in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion), but his understanding of the text together with his agile expression caught everyone’s attention. His was not just a reporter’s role, as he stood there as a real human narrator who was emotionally engaged in what he was singing. The opulent bass voice of Tobias Scharfenberg (Jesus) did not assault the ear but emphasised musical depth, immersed in impressive restraint and clarity. Another highlight was the chorus member Hermann Oswald in the various tenor soli. He mixed tragedy with wonder, indisputably a master in his different roles, perfectly adapting his voice to events as they unfolded. The Balthasar-Neuman Chorus and instrumentalists (two oboes, two flutes, two horns, two bassoons, timpani, strings and basso continuo) were all second to none, commandingly embracing the imaginative score and handling the high and low tessitura with impressive assurance. Choral virtuosity and articulation were embedded in the progressively dramatic course of events. There was that magical mix of mellow resonance and sharp definition. Conductor Ivor Bolton did not leave any doubt about his allegiance to Bach’s scoring. His detailing was just amazing, with superb shading and continuously pointing to well proportioned diction and dynamics, in well judged tempi. He presented the kind of brilliancy this a work needs and deserves, grasping and keeping the attention from start to finish. All were rewarded with loud and sustained cheers by a fully packed house.

St. Nicolai's Church: Ivor Bolton leads the Balthasar-Neumann Choir and Ensemble in the St. Matthew Passion by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

The Goldberg Variations in the Gewandhaus

There is the frequently returning question about the instrument to be used in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, originally written for cembalo. The work was most probably intended to be the last part of Bach’s “Clavier-Übung”. Whatever the original preferences, many of us are familiar with stunning piano performances by for instance Glenn Gould, András Schiff, Murray Perahia and Angela Hewitt. For sure, Bach’s music does not collapse under the weighty tone of the grand piano.

Evgeni Koriolov (Moscow 1949, but living in Hamburg) is a pianist with many important prizes behind him, his repertoire ranging from Bach to Debussy, Messiaen and Webern. He is also active in chamber music, with partners like Natalia Gutman, Mischa Maisky, the Auryn and the Keller Quartets. He forms a piano duo with his wife Ljupa Hadzigeorgieva.

Late that evening, on Friday, June 20, just prior to Kiorolov’s appearance, part of the audience in the Mendelssohn hall of the Gewandhaus was more or less in turmoil. The recital was to be recorded on video for NHK in Japan, which required the use of dazzling lights mercilessly directed at the public. The opposition was loud and clear: “This is music for us, not for television,” and “We did not pay for this distraction.” It was all a little bit over the top as those lights were only to be turned on at just a few instances, at the beginning and at the end of the concert, to allow the camera team to make a few snapshots of the applauding audience in the otherwise dimmed concert hall. After this became clear, tranquillity returned.

Kiorolov finally appeared on the podium, the lights were dimmed and the recital began. He first disappointed in the very slowly paced 32 bars of the introductory aria, no matter how beautifully he moulded each and every note. He lingered too much, definitely trying to make as much as possible out of them. But when the first variation went off, his playing gained momentum, the music strictly kept within its own expressive boundaries. Kiorolov’s ability to unlash each variation’s specific character by way of tempo and touch made this a highly rewarding listening experience after all (the additional bonus: the great sounding Steinway Grand was perfectly tuned). His Bach resonated in a most idiomatic interpretation that did all justice to the incidentally very complex counterpoint, consistently underpinning the expressive nature of the music. Fresh and beguiling in the quick movements, finding the depths in the slow ones, with all the panache and proficiency one could possibly ask for. At the end, after the 30th variation, Kiorolov repeated the aria in a slightly quicker tempo. Full circle in one of the greatest instrumental masterpieces of the 18th century.

Motets and Community Singing in St. Thomas's Church    

This is one of the cornerstones of the Bach Festival: motets and sacred cantatas as part of the regular church service, thus bridging almost three centuries. The mix of professional music making and community singing is a quite remarkable one by its nature, and so it was on Saturday afternoon, June 21st.

The organists Ullrich and Martina Böhme opened the program with Mozart’s Andante and five variations in G major K 501 for 4 hands. I prefer it to be played on the piano, but nevertheless this was fine. It was followed by Johann Ludwig Krebs’ motet “Erforsche mich, Gott” (on verses from Psalm 139). Krebs visited St. Thomas school from 1726 to 1735 and during these nine years he had organ and composition lectures from Bach. Krebs was one of the instrumentalists in his master’s Collegium Musicum. His impressive talents took him to important organist posts in Zwickau, and later in Zeitzer and Altenburg. Krebs left a substantial quantity of organ and church music.

Johann Christoph Altnickol’s motet “Befiehl du deine Wege” for mixed choir and basso continuo stems from Paul Gerhardt’s 12 choral verses of the same name. Altnickol’s motet may more or less resemble Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine Freude”, but its originality is nevertheless striking. Altnickol was, like Krebs, also one of Bach’s last pupils. He came to Leipzig in 1744 to study theology and music. Bach may well have enjoyed having Altnickol as his personal music assistant: the Thomas cantor was already 59 at that time and he could certainly use some extra hands. In 1748 Altnickol was given the important post of town organist at Naumburg. Two years earlier the organ builder Zacharias Hildebrandt had delivered a new organ to the St. Wenzel church and the well-designed instrument must have offered Altnickol excellent opportunities.

Gottfried August Homilius’ motet “Die mit tränen säen” for mixed choir (a capella) is based on two verses from Psalm 126 and has all the virtues of great baroque choral writing. In May 1735 he had come to Leipzig university as a law student, but he also studied composition with Johann Sebastian Bach and completed his organ studies with Johann Schneider, the organist of St. Nikolai’s Church. No wonder that Homilius finally became a musician instead of a lawyer! In 1742 his first appointment was a very important one: he was offered the post of principal organist at the Dresden Frauenkirche. In 1755 he became cantor and music director of all the main churches in Dresden and he made most of this memorable post until his death in 1785. In those thirty years, he strongly contributed to the sacred repertoire by composing about a dozen Passions, about sixty motets and over two hundred cantatas.

The last work on the program was Bach’s sacred cantata for Seventh Sunday after Trinity “Was willst du mich betrüben” BWV 107. It has been richly cast for soprano, tenor, bass, mixed choir, zink (instead of corno da caccia), two flutes, two oboes d’amore, strings and basso continuo. This chorale cantata was premiered on July 23, 1724 as part of Bach’s second Leipzig sacred cantata cycle (1724-25). For all Sundays and Holy Days when a cantata was to be performed, Bach usually selected the text for the choral part from the appropriate Gospel. Poetical i.e. paraphrased texts were chosen for the recitatives and arias, but not so for the cantata “Was willst du mich betrüben”. Here, the gospel text prevails, with no poetic adaptations, the reasons remaining unknown. Perhaps Bach did not have a poet at his disposal at that time, or there was just no opportunity to agree on a suitable text frame (Bach had left Leipzig shortly before for a trip to Kothen). The cantata’s basic text was written by Johann Heermann (1585-1647) in the dark period of the Thirty Years’ War and clearly reflects a solid belief in God, even in difficult times.

The Halle Madrigalists and the Dresden Chappel Soloists appeared to be as outstanding as the principal singers (Jana Reiner – soprano, Marcus Ullmann - tenor and Gotthold Schwarz – bass) in terms of sonic and textual purity. The vocal sculpting conjured up an air of musical and spiritual celebration offsetting the almost mechanical bombast that so often impairs the musical texture of choral baroque music. Here, these engaging choral works could flourish gorgeously with that special mixture of admirable professionalism, spiritual joy, prosaic serenity and contemplation, all far away from our everyday world. In Bach’s cantata the vocal and instrumental soloists created their own kingdom within the contours of the preceding sermon which had rightly focused on what this cantata was all about: Mark 8, verses 1-9. A great event, which easily brought up the question how of it must have sounded more than 250 years back, here in St. Thomas’s Church…

St. Thomas' Church (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Cantatas and a Magnificat by Bach's sons in St. Thomas's Church

The Thomas cantor Georg Christoph Billiger has become - through time and effort - a well reputed conductor, scholar and teacher. Above all he is, like many of his esteemed colleagues, well rooted in authentic performance practice, understanding its fundamentals and knowing how to implement them in practice. Another asset is his long experience with the peculiarities of the church’s capricious acoustics. These things were all there in his performance on Saturday, June 21.

The five works presented were all of great interest: the sacred cantatas “Est ist eine Stimme” Fk 89 by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, “Anbetung dem Erbarmer” Wq 243, “Gross und mächtig, stark und prächtig” Wf XIV/8 by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” BWV 50 (left to us in torso), with in between Johann Christian Bachs Magnificat in C major T 207/1. In short, Bach and his sons again (although it still remains questionable whether Johann Sebastian really composed BWV 50).

Whether it is appropriate or not, most of us will be intrigued by – albeit rudimentary – comparison between the musical qualities in the works of Bach's composing sons. One of the main questions that instantly pop up is whether they were able to create their own style under the influence of such an authoritative father. Education cannot be entirely repudiated. For Bach’s sons, composing sacred vocal music was presumably their greatest challenge, in and beyond family spheres. It must have been a matter of attaining creating artistic individuality and innovation pitched against equally strong tradition and convention. There was the fairly inevitable scenario of remodelling and reshaping against the presence of the mighty yardstick of their father’s compositions: the kind of smouldering conflict that determined their creative output, in one way or the other. Geniuses in their own right, that is what they tried to accomplish. Their presented works in the concert of Saturday, June 21, proved how difficult that must have been.

Frankly, Johann Christian Bach was the only family member who really broke with the traditional baroque mainstream. He was the most radical, decided to leave Germany to settle in Italy in the summer of 1755. Moreover, he converted to Catholicism. He immersed himself in the Italian liturgical style with its operatic influences, learning his new trade from Giovanni Battista Martini. The Magnificat in C major reveals the tremendous gap between the new stylistic universe he adopted and the still traditionally rooted sacred works of his brothers.

When Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was appointed organist at the Markt Church in Halle in May 1746, he started using his father’s vocal music for his performances, although adapting his own figurative pieces to that model. His sacred cantata “Es ist eine Stimme” (probably written between 1750 and 1755) is very impressively and most skilfully drafted, with two highly contrasting parts and a masterly double fugue (“Alle Tale sollen erhöht werden” – “Every valley shall be exalted”), further enriched by virtuoso arias that require ample technical skills.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Easter cantata “Anbetung dem Erbarmer” (Wq 243) belongs to his later vocal works which he wrote in Hamburg. It was completed on January 20, 1784 and heard for the first time a few months later, on Easter Sunday. Unlike his customary practice in Hamburg of compiling his figurative pieces as pasticcios from music by other composers, this Easter music is entirely his own, although not each movement comprises wholly new work. The second chorus (“Halleluja! Jesus lebet!”) for instance, is an arrangement of a song he had already published in 1781. The great soprano aria “Sie gegrüsset, Fürst des Lebens!” was already composed for the oratorio “Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu” and the massive choral fugue “Herr! Es ist dir keiner gleich” is an arrangement of the closing movement of the 1749 Magnificat. The choices he made indicate that he must have been very proud of his earlier work. Moreover, the selections prove that he wanted to present himself as an original genius who stood – although transcendently – in the centre of tradition.

However, the most impressive work in the program was the concluding “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” BWV 50. In this, a multitude of strands of the traditional musical practice of Central German baroque run together. No-one really knows whether Johann Sebastian Bach was the real author of the piece and there is also doubt about its purpose. Is this a monumental fragment of a cantata, or just a single movement in its own right? Although the piece has been recorded on different occasions (by a.o. Ton Koopman and John Eliot Gardiner) it was a great experience to hear it live this time, and especially in St. Thomas’s Church.

Georg Christoph Billinger conducts the Thomanorchor Leipzig and the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin in cantatas and Magnificat by Bach's sons in St. Thomas' Church (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

It was again amazing how well prepared this demanding program must have been. Each and every strand came alive in a fresh and beguiling fashion. Performing something so hideously difficult in such an almost free and highly spirited manner in this historically important setting made it eminently attractive. This declamatory expressive music with its complex contrapuntal qualities made a striking impression, thanks to the consistently brilliant contributions of the soloists and the intensely glowing playing of the instrumentalists. The choir was in a league of its own, fully committed to the score and singing with tremendous assurance. Here we also heard Billinger’s vast experience in this repertoire. His conducting came close to perfection, revealing that he could achieve light singing and complete naturalness in a difficult (but familar) setting.

Igor Levit: Piano recital

On Sunday, June 22 around noon I attended a quite remarkable piano recital by the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987 Nizhni Novgorod), in the Old Trading Bourse. The programme was rather unusual, and also different from what had been previously announced (instead of the two Rondos in E flat and A Major, Wq 61 No 1 and Wq 58 No 1 by C.P.E. Bach, we had his Fantasia No 2 Wq 61). Levit also announced his last minute decision to rank the Overture in French style in B minor BWV 831 as the first piece in the program. The formal part of the program ended with Reger’s horrendously difficult Variations and fugue on a theme by J.S. Bach Op 81.

Levit’s playing exhibits the kind of subtle intelligence that makes all the difference. He can spin a line affectingly and with such great naturalness that it is difficult to imagine that it could have been done in any other way. It is the logic of his architectural framework that creates ample room for his eminent legato styling (like in the tenth Reger variation), most convincingly contrasting with his pinpoint polyphony. There were more gems to watch: tonal fullness, sustained tensions, great care of apparent surface details, left hand accentuation when it really matters, resisting the temptation of mannered shaping of phrases - as if he had said to himself: “let the music just speak for itself.” That is what we got: an endless natural flow, impressive sound waves, masterly controlled and etched, technically amazingly perfect, without restraint or exaggeration, the eloquently decorative lines in the right hand masterfully shaped, cross-rhythmic transitions superbly placed. Simply said, he possesses all the real star qualities inherent in impeccable taste and musicianship. He did not present these works as mere perfunctory models, but imaginatively explored their expressive range, elucidating their riches with amazing conviction, as if each and every note needed to be savoured and cherished. In short, a really great recital.

Igor Levit plays in the Old Trading Bourse (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

The creative richness of Harmonie Universelle in the Old Town Hall

Light and shadow, consonances and dissonances, softness and sharpness, old music in youthful dressing, not a hint of boredom and no dusty music on dusty shelves. The ensemble Harmonie Universelle (Florian Deuter, - leader and violin, Mónica Waisman – violin, David Glidden – viola, Leonhard Bartussek – cello and Philippe Grisvard – cembalo) presents baroque music as if it is a kind of new phenomenon, the ink still fresh. You hear it in a glimpse, no question about it. Authentic styling? Yes, no doubt. The Old Town Hall was literally filled with music on June 22, a warm Sunday afternoon.    

Harmonie Universelle in the Old Town Hall (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Here everything was about music floating freely, with innate tempi and textural contrasts, nothing forced or overemphasised, the ornamentation uncommonly clean: the kind of deliciously seducing music making that can create the extraordinary, as in Johann Bernard Bach’s Overture No 3 in E minor for 2 violins, viola and basso continuo. Or consistently engaging in Johann Gottlieb Goldberg’s Sonata in C major for 2 violins and basso continuo. The audience was overwhelmed by the rapture in C.P.E. Bach’s Trio Sonata in C minor Wq 161/1 (2 violins and basso continuo), and rightly so. The concluding piece, an Overture in G minor (2 violins, viola and basso continuo) by an anonymous composer (it had been erroneously attributed to J.S. Bach and given the BWV No 170) could not have been presented in more lustrous sound and with a greater variety of timbre. The ensemble’s coruscating commitment was most enthralling.

The Festival's final  performance: Bach's Great Mass in B minor

Traditionally, the very last work on the Festival’s program is Bach’s Great Mass in B minor BWV 232 for two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, mixed choir, three trumpets, horn, two flutes, three oboes, two oboes d’amore, two bassoons, strings and basso continuo. It is arguably not only Bach’s greatest achievement, but the greatest of all sacred works ever composed, the final and eternal musical masterpiece of all times and of all peoples.

How little we know about the compositional process which made this the Opus Ultimum! We are able to follow the start of the project fairly exactly, as Bach intended not to write a ‘missa tota’ (the setting for the entire mass ordinary) but solely the Kyrie and the Gloria. He drafted both movements shortly after the death of August the Strong (on February 1, 1733), in the five-month state mourning period, during which the performance of any music was banned. This enabled Bach to devote more time to private projects. It was then that he decided to dedicate a sacred composition (the Kyrie and the Gloria) to the newly elected Frederick August II. By doing so he honoured the new ruler, but at the same time he served his own interest. This becomes clear from his letter of July 27, 1733 to August II, by which he presented both pieces:

Most Excellent Elector,

To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present small work of the science which I have achieved in music, with the humblest request that Your Highness will look upon it, not according to the poor composition but according to Your Highness’ world-famous clemency, with most gracious eyes, and will thus condescend to take me under Your most mighty protection. I have for several years, and up to the present time, held the directorship of music in the two main churches of Leipzig and have endured one and another slight through no fault of my own, which, however, might entirely cease would Your Royal Highness have the grace of conferring upon me a rank within Your Court Orchestra. I propose in most indebted obedience, at each kind request of Your Royal Highness, to give proof of my untiring efforts in composing music for the church and for the orchestra, and to devote my entire strength to Your service.

Your Royal Highness’ ever constant, most humble, devoted servant, Dresden, 27th July 1733. – Johann Sebastian Bach.

There were problems in Leipzig. Bach’s working conditions had worsened, disputes with the mighty and authoritative school, church and city counsels had arisen, from which he usually emerged as the loser. With the credentials from August II (he was probably hoping to be appointed as “Kapellmeister” to the Elector of Saxony) Bach would then have been under the protection of the Dresden authorities, eminently strengthening his gradually but unmistakably weakened position in Leipzig.

However, no response to Bach’s letter has been documented. Neither is there any trace of a performance in Dresden of the Kyrie and the Gloria, although it can hardly be questioned that Bach intended to have both complex pieces performed by the very skilled Dresden court orchestra. The recklessly daring horn (corno da caccia) part in the “Quoniam” may have been composed with the horn player Schindler in mind; the demanding solo violin part in the “Laudamus te” with primarius Pisendel, both outstanding musicians of the court orchestra. However, no one can really determine whether or not the work was finally performed in the presence of August II during the church ceremony in homage to the new ruler, on April 21, 1733.

Anyway, it took another three years before Bach was appointed as “Court Composer to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony”, after he had taken further steps in his disputes with the unpopular rector of St. Thomas’s School, Johann August Ernesti. At last, Bach had found in Count Keyserlingk a prominent advocate in Dresden.

Bach’s great opus opens with the Kyrie (in three parts). It instantly catches attention by the broadly expressive and complex fugue in “concertato” style, followed by a lovely duet for two sopranos. The concluding fugue is now transformed into the “stilo antico”, a throwback to Palestrina’s austere vocal polyphony.

The Gloria owes its greatness to the fabulous tutti and the colourful arias, whereas a great number of varied instrumental soli could point to the highly technical skills of the musicians at the Dresden court, for instance the brilliant solo violin part in the aria “Laudamus te”, the magnificent flute solo in the duet “Domine Deus”, the cantabile lines for the oboe d’amore in “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris”, but also the great horn and bassoons in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”.

The Credo is a prime example of exalted inspiration and unsurpassed craftsmanship throughout. Another highlight is the Confiteor, which is grounded on a double fugue that consists of two themes. The Gregorian chant starts as a real cantus firmus, followed by a quint canon between alt and bass, which is finally taken to the tenor part in stretched note values.

Why Bach extended the Kyrie and the Gloria to the setting of the complete mass ordinary, and above all in the final stage of his life (the manuscript score suggests that it was completed in autumn 1749), remains unknown, however. There are more questions than answers: the Lutheran service did not provide for the performance of a “Missa tota”, whereas the final version of the Mass in B minor is too long even for a Catholic High Mass. Additionally, the technical skills required go far beyond those of the Leipzig forces available to Bach. Only a few court orchestras were capable of providing these.

Putting that all aside, Bach proceeded in an economical fashion. He had recourse to his existing works, he could rearrange them. The solemn Sanctus was composed on its own in 1724 already, but the Agnus Dei is a rearrangement of an aria from the sacred cantata “Auf, suss entzückende Gewalt” BWV Appendix 196. The Osanna and Benedictus are parodies of movements from the lost cantata in honour of August I “Es lebe der König, der Vater im Lande” BWV Appendix 11. The real new creations can be found in the Symbolicum nicenum, the real heart of the Mass. They seem to be intended as Bach’s liturgical legacy when, in the setting of the central Crucifixus, Bach recalls the expressive opening chorus of his sacred cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” BWV 12 (Weimar 1714). However, he frames the new arrangement with two harmonically bold testimonies to his later style (Et incarnatus est and Confiteor). But he also reminisces on several centuries of Western musical history with his recourse to the Gregorian-styled cantus firmus.

Did Bach write this major work at the end of his life really with the intention to put it in his drawer? Just to suit the purpose of future generations, hearing the Mass in its entirety? Or was there a different, more concrete reason? The Leipzig Bach Archive found a new lead which suggests the latter supposition. In March 1749, Count Johann Adam von Questenberg, who had his court in Moravia, contacted Bach on some unspecified musical matter (despite all efforts the issue could not be cleared). However, archive research revealed that the count had been a member of a “Musical Congregation”, founded in 1725, a kind of Viennese brotherhood whose members consisted mainly of wealthy music patrons (like the Princes of Esterházy) and a large section of the imperial court orchestra. The society met every year on November 22 in St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, in honour of their patron saint, Cecilia, to celebrate a musical High Mass. Contemporary accounts tell that this always lasted several hours and was performed by the most famous virtuosos. A two-hour work like Bach’s Great Mass in B minor would have fitted perfectly, all the more so as a “missa” by a Viennese composer performed by the Society in the early 1740s displays many formal parallels with Bach’s Great Mass. This would also make Bach’s decision to complete the work mainly by means of older compositions more comprehensible. Within this scope there would not have been any reason why Bach, the protestant cantor of St. Thomas’s Church, should not have created a sacred work for a private event by a Catholic brotherhood, in honour of the patron saint of sacred music!

The performance on Sunday, June 22, in St. Thomas’s Church under the baton of Sir Roger Norrington left me with some mind boggling. Apart from the lack of real instrumental authenticity (the German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen mostly use modern instruments) the overall approach was definitely romantic, with massive choral explosions and crescendi in expressive overdrive. Norrington’s predilection for outsized expansion diminished the transparency in the multiple vocal lines by the RIAS Chamber Choir, no matter how striking the effect often was. St. Thomas’s Church’s acoustics easily generate a congested sound as it is particularly noticed when seated on the left or right upper wing (less so in the nave). Maybe Norrington did not notice that from his position, although at the rehearsals he wanted to have the first left desks (first violins) preferably closer to him, demanding some further reshuffling of the orchestra later on.

St. Thomas' Church: Sir Roger Norrington leads Bach's Great Mass in B minor (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Although Bach prescribed two sopranos, the second soprano part is more often taken by the alto. Yes, it saves one soloist definitely, for just one duet. Thus we got the dialogue between the soprano Dominique Labelle and the alto Annette Markert in the “Christe eleison” part. However, a perfect option would have been to employ one of the sopranos of the choir, for instance Ulrike Barth or Madalena de Faria. The daring horn part in the “Quoniam” (played by Christian Dallmann) fared better in the rehearsals than in this performance, whereas the cembalo part (by Beate Röllecke) was sometimes hardly audible. The tenor James Taylor and the bass Yorck Felix Speer suffered from some interpretative restrains in their more demanding legato lines in the “Benedictus qui venit” and “Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum”. But there were marvellous moments as well, such as in soprano aria “Laudamus te” (with Daniel Sepec’s great violin solo) and the alto aria “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris”, the sounds of the oboe d’amore’s solo most beautifully blending with the voice. Generally said, the arias revealed most of the baroque character of this greatest of all music, sturdily lyrical at times, but with most touching, almost begging grace in the “Dona nobis pacem”, not to speak of the tremendous depth that was reached in the “Incarnatus est”. At such moments it is the kind of expressive retraction that easily surpasses the rhetorical dramatising that can just make the expansive Gloria just sound over the top.

I should also mention Norrington’s strong communicative powers, not only when he firmly directs his objectives to his forces, but also in his inimitable interplay with the public, as if he wants to involve his audience almost physically in his conducting. Norrington’s gestures are simply underlining his own amazement about the music’s superior momentum.

Despite those critical observations the high voltage, vigour, grandeur and impact of the performance were tremendous. It was the kind of edge-of-seat excitement that made this one of the most spiritual pleasures.

Loud cheers after the performance (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Musical tourism.

One of the Festival’s great assets are those bus tours which depart almost daily around 9.30 at the main entrance of St. Thomas’s Church. Provided with a lunch package and always with an expert guide at hand you will be taken to all kinds of interesting historic sites in Saxony and Thuringen, with the additional bonus of interesting musical performances at the spot, ranging from organ music on all sorts of historic organs to a cantata in a church in Bach’s birthplace Eisenach. I guarantee you will learn a lot and you return to Leipzig with a heavy load of absolutely new impressions and knowledge. in very good shape, just ready to enjoy the forthcoming evening concert.

Then, there are those many well prepared and thoroughly interesting lectures on Bach, his music and his musical family in the nearby Old Trading Bourse. Musicologists of the Bach Archive, like Andreas Glöckner and Peter Wollny, will take you on their adventurous tour through the baroque period, with audio extracts et al. Those who do not understand German can rely on excellent translations which perfectly suit the purpose, be it in the bus, at an historical site or at a lecture.

But there is still more to go for, like the various workshops and outdoor concerts, the table talks with performers, the living quarters of Mendelssohn and Schumann, the Bach or city museum, the startling collection of old musical instruments at the Grassi museum, the opera, etc.

One of the many outdoor happenings (here in front of the opera building) (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

Epilogue: is anything missing?

It is unquestionable that the Leipzig Bach Festival focuses on baroque music, albeit in this edition with side steps to Mozart, Mendelssohn, Rihm, Reger and even jazz. Its highly attractive mainstream attracts Bach lovers and, for that matter, baroque enthusiasts. Surely, there is nothing wrong with that. To take it a step further in time: the world famous Bayreuth Festival focuses on Wagner’s music, whereas most expensive stage productions are subject to recycling. There is nothing wrong with that either.

The program schedule in Leipzig shows no signs of wear and tear, but offers a high-profile mix of the greatest well-known and much less familiar works from the baroque era. We might even have the chance to listen to quite remarkable music that was left unattended on the shelves for ages, but which finally got the attention of a scholar, a conductor or a librarian, and often with stunning result.

Old Music, yes, but it still tells us a lot about those composers of the 17th and 18th century; and also about their social environment, as they were strongly footed in their time. Baroque music can be provocative and challenging, but at any rate much more than just a school of thought. Even more, it is fundamental to most people’s understanding of serious music. So many works from that period not only established a very important landmark in the music of history, but they have also strongly influenced much later generations of composers, ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky.

The authenticity movement initiated in the 1960s by leading baroque musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt climbed to unexpected heights in the 1980s and beyond, finally developing into one of the most important cornerstones of the public’s appropriate assessment of baroque music. The implementation of original instruments (factually their replicas) stimulated the rethinking on baroque rhetoric, making Old Music sounding fresh, vivid or even new.

Authentic performers have now reached the point that naturalness has become their hallmark in playing baroque music. The coarse surprises have mostly disappeared, the musicians having gathered expertise and experience, mastering their instrument without losing their ability to surprise. We will never know the true sense of how the music was really played in the baroque era, but we may just rely on the fact that outstanding musicianship delivers to us all the virtues of great articulation, filigree dynamic shading and responsive playing. That is to say with all the imaginable subtleties within the baroque musical spectrum. Or just robustly when it needs to be, or lyrical, or with skittering virtuosity and great panache. And all this without those many idiosyncrasies which have dominated the ‘baroque market’ for such a long time.

The Leipzig Bach Festival has made it all clear to anyone who wants to listen. Riveting and contrasting programming together with stimulating, radiant and inspired performances invigorated the sensation of great discoveries, alternating between the extraordinary and the absolutely redeemed high standards of playing and interpretation. And there is much to chose from in the various series: Soli Deo Gloria (sacred music performed at the original venues), Harmonia Mundi (baroque splendour and symphonic sound in Leipzig), For Connoisseurs and Enthousiasts (chamber concerts and night music), Bach out and about (in the footsteps of the virtuoso organist Bach), Familiar Bach (hear, experience, learn about and join in with Bach in Leipzig), BACHmosphere (Bach’s legacy in Leipzig’s subculture, clubs and outdoor concerts), Church and organ music (Bach in his element), Talks and lectures (artists and musicologists talk about Bach).

The Leipzig Bach Festival 2008? So much more than just a lucky shot! The next Festival? It will be held from June 11 to June 21. Then, the central theme will be Bach (of course!), Mendelssohn and Reger. I would be highly surprised when it would not turn out to be a lucky shot again!

Bach all over the city... (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)
A great night scenery (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)
Much more than just courtesy... Assistance throughout the day and night... (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)
The prestigious Bach Medal of the City of Leipzig 2008 was handed to the German conductor Hermann Max by the major of Leipzig (© Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes)

With special thanks to Bach Archive Leipzig (Jennifer Bröcher, Wolfgang Ensslin, Andreas Glöckner, Michael Maul, Bernhard Schrammek, Uwe Wolf and Peter Wollny).    

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(Click here for the Dutch version with more images)