Leipzig Bachfest 2016
‘Secrets of Harmony’
June 10-19 2016
Under the title of ‘Secrets of Harmony’, this year’s Leipzig Bachfest featured 114 events and welcomed visitors from 35 countries. Alongside the mainstream concerts were b@ch for us! events for young people and BACHmosphere concerts in venues like the Markt and the grand Hauptbahnhof. For many years now I have been able to review the whole of the Leipzig Bachfest but unfortunately, this year, my time in Leipzig was limited to just a few days. So I missed most of the opening weekend and the final few days.
Sunday 12 June
My first event was the German-French Choir Academy, the culmination of the annual collaboration between local young musicians and visitors from other countries, on this occasion combining the Ensemble vocal du Conservatoire de Lyon and the Jugendchor der Oper Leipzig, directed in this concert in the Thomaskirche by Olof Boman. Their hour-long afternoon concert had a wide-ranging repertoire, ranging from recent Scandinavian music to pieces by Schütz, Purcell, Charpentier and Bach. They were accompanied by the ten-instruments of the Michaelis Consort. After opening speeches, they opened with a Swedish folksong, started by a unison girls’ chorus singing from the side galleries of St Thomas’ Church. As the verses progressed, lower voices joined in and they processed, rather noisily, to the west end gallery. And then started the issue with a number of the Bachfest venues: limited visibility for most of the audience. Only very few could actually see the performers on the rear gallery, most either facing away from them, or with their view partially or completely blocked by the pulpit (see photo for my view). The rather subdued mood of the first few pieces was partially relieved by ‘Banish sorrow’ and ‘To the hills’ from Dido and Aeneas, before returning to the gloom of Actéon’s death in Charpentier’s Choeur de Chasseurs chorus Hélas, est-il possible from Actéon. The young singers gave a very good account of Bach’s Lobet den Herrn and their encore, Handel’s ‘O happy, happy we’. But some of the other pieces would have projected more clearly into the large space if their vibrato had been less pronounced.
The early evening concert proved to be one of the highlights of my time in Leipzig, with the Knabenchor Hannover & Concerto Köln, directed by Jörg Breiding and their programme ‘Nothing but Masterpieces’ of five contrasting Bach cantatas performed in 1724, the year after Bach’s arrival in Leipzig. This was one of the busiest periods of Bach’s life, with a cantata written and performed every week, leaving a remarkable, but sadly incomplete record of the Thomaskantor’s musical life. Examination of the scores of these cantatas reveals a lot about the compositional process, not least through Bach’s own revisions to the musical text in the performing scores. Pressure of work meant that Bach occasionally re-worked an earlier piece, and the concert opened with an example of this, the joyous cantata Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (Heaven laughs! The earth rejoices, BWV 31). This was first performed in Weimar in 1715, and again in Leipzig in 1724 and 1731. It is scored for a large orchestra, including three trumpets, timpani and four oboes, including a tenor oboe. There is some exposed writing for the cello, although on this occasion rather forceful initial transients and over-loud playing made this rather more prominent that it should have been. The following Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange, BWV 155, was known from a 1716 autograph score but, based on papers in St Petersburg, is now known to have been performed again in 1724. Opening, rather unusually, with a soprano recitative over a pulsating bass, there follows a duet between alto and tenor and a virtuosic and wide ranging obligato bassoon (played beautifully by Monika Fischalek) before a soprano aria, Wirf, mein Herze, with a convoluted melodic line unfolding over a jagged bass line, exquisitely adorned with ornaments by Joanna Lunn. The chorus only appears for the final Choral.
Two horns and a pair of oboes da caccia and recorders feature in the dramatic Epiphany cantata Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, BWV 65, as the three wise men bring their gifts. Bach makes full use of the colours and contrasts of the orchestra, following the grand opening chorus and choral with an extended bass recitative sung by the well-deserved recipient of this year’s Leipzig Bach Medal, Peter Kooij. A few weeks later, Bach composed Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir, BWV 73, with its innovative opening movement and tenor and bass arias. The concert ended with Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 190, a work that has been reconstructed by Masato and Masaaki Suzuki from scant sources. It is a powerful work, scored for a grand orchestra, and opens with one of Bach’s most jubilant choruses, including elements of the German Te Deum. It includes an impressive alto aria, sung by the excellent Margot Oitzinger, demonstrating an impressive tonal range and an impressive clarity and purity of tone – a style she shared with soprano Joanna Lunn.
Although performances in the Nikolaikirche are given from the front of the nave at ground level, visibility is still a problem for most of the audience. From my seat in one of the two side galleries, I could see about two-thirds of the orchestra, but only two of the boys from the large choir, and a side, and partially blocked view of the soloists. Although the music is audible everywhere, from the sides, the choir seated in the narrow chancel, sounded rather muffled.
The evening’s entertainment was to have been courtesy of Cameron Carpenter “having a ball smashing the stereotypes of organists and organ music” on his massive electronic touring organ on a stage on the Market Square. But, with heavy rain posing the risk of electrocuting most of the potential audience and shorting out Leipzig’s electrical system, it was cancelled. I did hear him rehearsing his rather distinctive and personal approach to Bach during the afternoon. Whereas many organists add their personal take on Bach by a subtle use of rubato, phrasing, articulation, and registrations, Carpenter takes Bach by the scruff of the neck and shakes him about unmercifully before regurgitating what’s left through the filter of the world of the theatre organ.
Monday 13 June
Monday saw the second of the six ‘Bach Out & About’ trips to places of interest outside Leipzig. Four of these are usually devoted to organs of interest, including this trip to the c1735 Hähnel organ in Steinbach and the 1671 Richter organ in Pomßen, two villages south of Leipzig. The Steinbach organ has a confusing history, with little real evidence as to its provenance. It seems to have reused five ranks of pipes from an early positive organ that may date from before the 1717 construction of the church. The two divisions of the little organ are positioned one above the other, the second manual hidden below the visible pipes of the main manual (as an unterwerk), and sounding a great deal quieter as a sort of echo organ to the powerful main division. It was restored in 2011. In typical central German Lutheran fashion, the organ forms the upper part of artistic trilogy of altar, pulpit and organ. It was demonstrated by the clearly articulated playing of Annette Herr in a programme of Bach and Reger, the 100th anniversary of whose death is one of the themes in this year’s Bachfest. The 4’ flute, used in the Adagio of the Bach/Vivaldi concerto BWV 593 was particularly attractive.
The 1671 Richter organ in the Wehrkirche (‘fortified’ church) in Pomßen is a curious affair. Built in 1671 after a fire had destroyed its predecessor, it has the hallmark of a much earlier, Renaissance style organ, not least in its external appearance. Long thought to contain older pipework, the 2004/6 restoration confirmed that all the pipework was by Richter. With one manual and a small pedal (added in 1727), the organ is tuned in quarter-comma meantone temperament, giving a purity to chords in the ‘good’ keys, a colourful twist to the colour of the more remote keys and a particular texture to chromatic passages because of the two different sized semitones. Roland Börger gave an excellent, but rather loud recital of music by Milan, Correa, Scheidt, Böhm, Pachelbel and Weckmann. The temperament was tested in Pachelbel’s chromatic Ricercar in c, and Roland Börger’s ability to master the complex world of Spanish ornamentation was tested in the two Correa de Aurazo Tientos.
The main evening concert in the Nikolaikirche was the première of Nach Markus, a contemporary commission based on Bach’s enigmatic St Mark’s Passion by composer Steffen Schleiermacher, performed by Collegium Vocale Leipzig and Merseburger Hofmusik, under Michael Schönheit. All that survives of Bach’s St Mark Passion is the complete libretto and the suggestion that Bach reused several earlier compositions, including several movements from the 1727 Trauerode: Lass, Fürstein noch einen Strahl. Several attempts have been made to complete the work, usually by adapting other Bach works to fit the libretto. Schleiermacher’s approach was to incorporate the Bach fragments into a completely new work based on a new text, written by Christian Lehnert. Schleiermacher’s own music weaves itself around what is assumed to be Bach’s seven original arias and choruses, building on or deconstructing fragments of those seven extracts in a wide variety of contemporary musical styles, sometimes in a sympathetic idiom but occasionally in stark contrast. For example, Bach’s opening chorus Heg, Jesu, geh zu deiner Pein! segued into Schleiermacher’s soprano aria Der Fels liegt in harter Strahlung, a more jagged reworking of Bach’s chorus, retaining the strong rhythmic impulse within a minimalist idiom. Die Schrift (‘The scripture falls like an axe-blow’) includes repeated interjections of the title words during a bass aria based on the Golgotha story, as ‘Scraps of words, splinters pierce his gums’.
The orchestra uses the period instruments appropriate to Bach’s original music, with notable contributions from the viola d’amore (Katharina Dargel), flute (Ulrike Wolf) and bassoon (Alexander Golde). A particularly interesting timbre occurred in Er atmete ein und aus (He breathed in and out) where the female singers accompanied with their own regular intakes of breath. The emotional heart of the work came towards the end, with the tenor aria Nässe rinnt, Schwellungen, accompanied by oboe da caccia and plucked strings. An extended pause occurred where the sermon would normally have been inserted, allowing some people to leave, but not really allowing anybody enough leg stretching to last the long 140 minute length of the concert. This was clearly something of a test for many in the audience, with people continuing to drift out as the evening progresses. Even members of the choir needed to pop out on occasions, although they did return. The couple on one side of me indulged in almost continuous whispered attempts to work out where we were, while the two women on my other side took to noisily trying to complete the extensive Bachfest questionnaire, the scratching of their pencils and their page turning adding an unwanted distraction. It was a long evening, not helped by the conductor holding back the final the applause for an awkwardly long time.
Tuesday 14 June
The third of the Bach ‘Bach Out & About’ trips was of particular interest to fans of the organ builder Hildebrandt, a pupil and competitor to the more famous Silbermann, and generally reckoned to be Bach’s favourite organ builder. We visited two Hildebrandt organs, the tiny village church organ in Pölsfeld (1728) and the substantial organ in the town church of Sangerhausen (1727/28). For the Pölsfeld organ, Hildebrandt reused four stops from an early small organ, adding another five stops. Unusually for his organs, and others of the period in this area, the older stops sound very much quieter than the new stops. Only two of Hildebrandt’s stops have survived, the 8’ Rohrflöte and the Cornett. Typical of its time, it is tucked high up under the ceiling at the altar end of the church, atop the usual vertical trilogy of altar, pulpit, organ. Martina Pohl demonstrated the organ with pieces by Bach, Krieger (including his extended Ciacona), and Muffat.
Martina Pohl is organist in Sangerhausen, a far better reflection on Hildebrandt’s abilities than Pölsfeld. With two manuals and pedals, this substantial instrument has a full range of colours and timbres, with a bright Oberwerk matching the more sonorous Hauptwerk. As with all Hildebrandt organs, the mixtures are fully integrated into the sound of the plenum chorus, rather than sitting on top on that sound, as can be the case with Silbermann organs. Every possible combination of stops results in a coherent and balanced sound, as is the case in Hildebrandt’s most important organ in Naumburg (reckoned by many to be the ideal Bach organ) and the small 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, visited during several Out & About trips in earlier years. Martina Pohl gave a most impressive recital of Bach’s ‘Schübler’ Chorales, enclosed within two major Preludes and Fugues.
Under this year’s circumstances of being limited to just three days, this would have been the end of my Bachfest reviewing – just five events, as opposed to last year’s 23 reviewed events.
However, independently of the Bachfest, I had been invited to return to Störmthal to give another recital on the magnificent 1723 Hildebrandt organ on Wednesday 15 June. This is his first independent work, and one of the most complete surviving to this day, with all but two stops original. More details of that recital can be found here. This recital enabled me to spend an additional two days in Leipzig, courtesy of the Störmthal church authorities, so that, on this occasion, I could experience a few more Bachfest events.
This extended stay started with a curious evening in the world-famous Leipzig Zoo, where the promised ‘guided tour’ seemed to have been briefed to escort us more-or-less directly to a restaurant where we would be encouraged to dine during the hour or more that we were expected to wait before the promised African inspired jazz started. I heard Vieux Farka Touré & Band rehearsing and would have stayed to hear them properly if they had started playing as we arrived at the venue. Instead I returned to the Thomaskirche for the two late evening recitals of Bach’s solo violin works given by Christian Tetzlaff.
Hearing a solo violin in a large acoustic is one of the most magical sounds around, the acoustics of the violin having just the right timbre to penetrate the space without the need to be enforced. Sadly, that was something that Christian Tetzlaff hasn’t quite grasped in what was a rather bombastic reading of Bach six works for unaccompanied violin, given in two adjacent concerts at 9pm and 10.30pm. Using an enormous range of volumes, he relished the practice of playing forcefully to the point of aggression, to be immediately followed by an almost inaudible meekness. Individual movements tended to be either very fast or very slow, very loud or very quiet. The Sarabanda of the D minor Partita started off ff but then declined to an almost inaudible pp with an enormous rallantando. The initial transient from the pressure of his bow on the strings often gave an angry edge to the sound, and his use of articulation to separate one note from another seemed to be limited to those rare occasions when speed allowed such subtleties. Bach frequently merely hints at underlying melodies in these movements, but Tetzlaff seemed keen to force these subtle melodic fragments out into the opening, upsetting the balance of the harmonic and melodic structure of the work in the process.
Wednesday 19 June
Much of Wednesday was taken up in preparing for, and giving, my own early evening recital on the Störmthall organ, but a very long first half and an extended interval meant that I arrived back into the city centre in time for the second half of the main evening concert, from the RIAS Kammerchor, Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Sir Roger Norrington and their performance of Haydn’s ‘Harmoniemesse’ (Mass in B flat major). This was viewed from a gallery at the far end of the Nikolaikirche through a tiny gap between two pillars, and with a third more distant pillar blocking most of my view of the performers. This meant that I couldn’t see Sir Roger Norrington, usually one of the most visually entertaining conductors. But I could certainly hear the effect that he was having on the orchestra and choir in this powerful performance of a powerful work. That was evident from the start when the choir burst in with their dramatic interjection of Kyrie into the orchestral introduction. The name ‘Harmonie’ Mass (the German word for a wind ensemble) was added later in reference to Haydn’s extensive use of wind instruments, with notable contributions here from Rodrigo Blumenstock, oboe, and Theo Plath, bassoon. This was his last completed work, and has something of a career-culminating feel to it, not least in its sheer power and emotional impact, something that Norrington revealed perfectly. As well as the tone colour these instruments reveal, Haydn also uses a wide range of musical devises to underscore the text. The soloists were Christina Landshamer, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Julian Prégardien, and Tobias Berndt. During the first half of the concert, they had performed Bach Sanctus (BWV 232), later re-used in his B Minor Mass, and Handel’s ‘Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day’.
Thursday 16 June
My final Bach out and about trip (the fourth of six) was to the famous Trost organ in the Shloß Altenburg, sometime seat of the Dukes of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who sense of self grandeur is most noticeably displayed in their Castle Chapel. A medieval building with the awkward shape of a square ‘nave’ with a narrow ‘chancel’ leading out from the edge of one side, the reigning Duke insisted on Trost positioning the organ to one side of the chancel. The narrowness of the space meant that Trost was obliged to spread the front case out as wide as he could, as the entire organ is only about 1.5m deep. This resulted in a larger than usual number of case pipes, only a few of which are original – the small, darker-hued ones in the photograph. However the whole organ retains some 70% of Trost’s original pipework. The organ was completed in 1739, and was visited by Bach later that year. Trost’s approach was experimental, and included a number of new types of stops and a much greater emphasis on 8’ colour stops than had hitherto been the case in central Germany. Trost’s workshop as Court Organ Builder still remains within the extensive compound of the former castle and palace. The long-time resident organist, Felix Friedrich, gave a rather curious recital of music by JC and JS Bach, Krebs (father and son, both organists in Altenburg) and Kellner, very little of which was really intended to be played on the organ. It was also a shame that most of the important stops of the organ were not demonstrated. Johann Ludwig Krebs is one of the most important of the post-Bach organist composers, so more, and better chosen examples of his organ music would have been far more appropriate.
One concert that I was particularly pleased to have been able to get to, just before my flight home, was given in the famous Grassi Museum of Musical Instruments. Under the title of Canones diversi, Anne Freitag (flute and recorder), Susanne Scholz (violin), and Jean-Christophe Dijoux (harpsichord and organ) gave a very well planned, but difficult to perform concert ranging from the Renaissance to the 18th century, involving nine instruments appropriate to each period of music. Most pieces, as the concert title suggests, were based on the use of canon, and all were pieces known by Bach. Perhaps the most interesting section was the first, which combined a flute based on a 1550 Bassano original and a copy of the tiny c1594 violin found amongst the spectacular decorations of the burial chapel of the Wettin family rulers of Saxony, in the chancel of Freiburg Dom. Rather than being sculptural models of musical instruments, they were actually real original instruments. Violinist Susanne Scholz founded Chordae freybergenses specifically to record and demonstrate the copies of these instruments, made under the auspices of the Grassi Museum. My review of their CD, with a photo of the some of the original instruments, can be found here.
Flautist Anne Freitag is a musician that I first heard perform in the Leipzig Bachfest three years ago, in a special prizewinners recital. In my review (in the now defunct Early Music Review magazine) I wrote that her playing was “some of the most musically sensitive playing that I have heard from any musician on any instrument”. That is a view that was strengthened after hearing her again in this concert. Although her training tends towards the earlier repertoire, she also showed herself capable of responding with musical and stylist conviction to the later music represented in this concert. Similar plaudits must go to keyboard player Jean-Christophe Dijoux, who I had also heard and praised in an earlier Bachfest. Whether playing two different types of harpsichord or the little Silbermann organ in the Grassi Museum, he demonstrated a detailed understanding of period style which he combined with a refreshingly fresh approach to interpretation. My review of his recent CD, a result of his winning the harpsichord category of the 2014 Leipzig International Bach Competition, can be found here. Incidentally, both Anne Freitag and Jean-Christophe Dijoux are former members of the annually reformed European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO).
Although the Bachfest still had three more days to run, that was it for me. Some of next year’s Bachfest events are already listed on their website and they have already started selling tickets for the 2017 concluding concert.
Update: The 2017 festival will focus on Martin Luther and his “beautiful new songs”, and Monteverdi, both of whom have anniversaries. 120 events are programmed between June 9 and 18. Booking is now open.