The Bach Akademie Australia’s Music in the Castle of Heaven, conducted by Artistic Director Madeleine Easton, celebrates the tercentenary of JS Bach’s appointment in 1723 to his longest and most successful engagement as Kantor at St Thomas’ Church in Leipzig.
Fresh from a Bach pilgrimage on which I heard back-to-back to concerts, traversing the towns and churches of Bach’s life, I have a new appreciation of Bach’s time in Leipzig, trudging between the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, where he also worked, in an era devoid of the comforts and amenities of modern living and printing.
Despite its religious purpose, Bach’s writing embodies the drama of opera and the grandeur of the court amidst its Lutheran simplicity. Easton embraces this breadth in her selection of iconic pieces to celebrate the Leipzig years and the upcoming festive season.
These baroque treats, brim with Bach’s peerless writing, are performed by a choir of 16 hand-picked singers and a luxurious period ensemble of 21, including bassoon, transverse flutes, oboes d’amore, trumpets and horn. Stamina and a secure technique are demanded by this challenging anthology as well as the ability to tell a tale in song and tenacious ensemble skills.
Easton maintains an understated but firm hand on the proceedings, navigating at times, some daringly fast tempi.
Highlights of the program include bass Andrew O’Connor’s narrative artistry and lightness in strength, evident in his recitative from BWV 78, and the aria Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder (from BWV 110), featuring trumpeter Leanne Sullivan. Both are wonderful platforms for these musicians’ mastery of Bach’s early style.
Alto Hannah Fraser’s creamy tones match the fluid oboe d’amore of Adam Masters in the BWV 110 obbligato aria. Soprano Anna Sandström and alto Stephanie Dillon fly through their BWV 78 duet with precision and exuberance. Timothy Reynolds gives an expert account of the extended, dramatic tenor recitative in BWV 78.
Soprano Susannah Lawergren and O’Connor present two beautifully expressive, well-crafted duets from BWV 140, first with violinist and orchestra leader Julia Fredersdorff and then with oboe d’amore and continuo with bassoon, although there may have been some vocal tiredness at the very end of this substantial collection.
The concert opens with the chorale prelude In Dulci Jublio BWV 729, a Christmas carol from the Middle Ages. We hear Bach’s organ setting from Nathan Cox who presents a slower tempo than usual for the chords of the chorale, separated by faster improvisatory melodic passages.
The festivities begin in earnest with the ‘laughing’ cantata Unser mund sei voll Lachens BWV 110, which premiered on Christmas Day 1725 in the Thomaskirche. The orchestra is in festive format with trumpets and timpani added to woodwinds, strings and continuo section. Here, the orchestra’s crisply dotted rhythms punctuate the deleriously whirling triplets implying laughter, vividly and tightly depicted by the choir.
Mozart, travelling through Leipzig in 1789, apparently heard and was transformed by the motet Singet dem Herrn BWV 225, performed in the Thomaskirche, conducted by one of Bach’s successors. The double choir plucks out the recurring bell-like motifs in ringing antiphonal style. The central aria is sung by the whole choir rather than with soloists and the optional repeat is omitted, moving to the second fast section and the two choirs combining in the Cori unisoni finale.
The cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele BWV 78 introduces a note of sorrow with its bitter chromatic descents into penitence. In the magnificent opening passacaglia, the dotted rhythms are not joyful but weighty. Here is another marvellous moment from O’Connor with the recitative Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab and its aria with oboe d’amore and continuo.
Finally, the crowning glory of the concert with a splendid account of one of Bach’s most mature and popular cantatas, the brilliantly constructed Wachet auf BWV 140. Here, the ubiquitous dotted rhythms recur in the famous opening chorus, representing not laughter or sorrow, but majesty. The powerful tenor section shines in its chorale, Zion hört die Wächter singen and the ensemble concludes with a glorious, full-blooded sound in the closing chorale.
Few figures in history enjoy a global popularity and longevity that has endured for over three centuries. Perhaps Shakespeare. JS Bach must surely win on sheer breadth and volume of output and the unending wonder of hearing his music which stokes the intellect as well as the passions. The Bach Akademie Australia is pivotal in keeping these riches alive.
Music in the Castle of Heaven will be performed again at City Recital Hall, Sydney, 23 November.