Bachfest Leipzig 2003
23 May-1 June







Review by Yo Tomita

Ton Koopman and Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra receiving standing ovation (24 May 2003)

What do you expect in a music festival?

Some people may be attracted by the performers, others perhaps by the programmes, or both! The organizers surely think through this issue very carefully, for, in order to establish its reputation and to have a wider appeal, the event must offer something more substantial than that. If the festival is an annual event, then it must also offer something distinct every year that is both fresh and attractive so that their visitors will return year after year.

Bachfest Leipzig 2003, which ran from 23 May to 1st June, offered an impressive theme—“Bach in Leipzig – between tradition and a new beginning”. It sounded grand, but it puzzled me for a while what it meant to mean. However, having attended the festival (though I had time to attend the first four days only), I realized how appropriate it was, and how much I enjoyed the festival.

Rewarded amply were those listeners who came all the way from various parts of the world to hear the performances of some of the greatest maestros. Gustav Leonhardt (who received the Bach Medal from the city of Leipzig during the festival for his outstanding contribution to the promotion of Bach’s music) and Ton Koopman were on my list. The Thomascantor, Georg Christoph Billers, who was supposed to conduct the opening concert, was unfortunately indisposed, and was deputized by Gotthold Schwarz who did his duties pretty well. As for Leonhardt, his reading of Bach’s Cantatas 69a, 75, 76 and 50 was both assuring and refreshing. I thought Tölzer Knabenchor could have had sharper definition in the ensemble (which could have been corrected by better positioning them on the balcony), but the voice of all the soloists were well projected (as they were so positioned in the balcony). There were no problems in the Freiburger Barockorchester, which expertly handled the ensemble.

  Leonhardt receiving the Bach Medal

Koopman and his soloists


The star of the festival for me was Koopman who conducted the highly acclaimed Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. His performance was a powerful demonstration of his abilities; every phrase was carefully and beautifully shaped; every chord was balanced and focused; the diction and projection of voice from his singers were excellent. The sound of every performer was blended well with the huge acoustic space of the Thomaskirche. The packed audience seemed to agree with me, as so many people gave standing ovation. It was he, Koopman, who gave me the hint to solving the puzzle about the ‘tradition and new beginning’. This historic venue – where Bach himself conducted his orchestra and choir more than 250 years ago – is in fact a more compelling reason to come for the multi-national audience who surely came with the expectation to experience something similar to what the congregations of Bach’s time witnessed. For those who remember the drawn-on debate several years ago on the issue of choristers (i.e. how many singers there were in Bach’s choir), Koopman’s performance was his answer, a convincing one. His performers sang and played so beautifully and convincingly that I wondered what Bach would have said if he were among us (for I was so convinced that it must have been better than what Bach had done with his limited control on his performers). Many audiences came to Leipzig longing to know what it was like in Bach’s time; they expected to learn the glimpse of tradition that was perhaps still live in the city. Yet we saw ‘a new beginning’ in Koopman.

Since Bach’s time, many things have changed: for example, the listener’s perception of music, performance techniques and the acoustic characteristics of the Thomaskirche are quite different from those of Bach’s time. Yet we witnessed the power of music in this unique setting, the place where it was originally performed. We were also powerfully reminded that every performance has to be recreated beyond time and space, and that the old work of art is still valid and effective as it was a few hundred years ago.

The choice of programmes had some interesting thoughts, too. The inclusion of programmes by Bach’s predecessors and contemporaries in one concert, for instance, Magnificat by Kuhnau and Bach (BWV 10 [German translation by Martin Luther] and 243a [an early version in E-flat]) in Koopman’s concert on the 24th, certainly added another historical dimension where some audience of Bach’s time would have been able to enjoy such opportunities as to compare their present Cantor (Bach) with the previous post holders. To many visitors, the theme of the festival made a good sense: surely it was an interesting pursuit that successfully demonstrated what Leipzig can still offer today.

During the weekend, I also participated in two organ tours—the so-called ‘Trost organ’ in Altenburg castle chapel on Saturday the 24th and the Pomßen church organ and the Hildebrandt organ in the Kreuzkirche in Störmthal on Sunday the 25th. These organs are of historical significance, as they were inspected and performed by Bach (except the one in Pomßen), and thus are still considered by scholars to retain some important information about Bach’s knowledge of the instruments as well as clues as to how one may be able to interpret Bach’s organ music in the way he did. The tour on Saturday to Altenburg was the longer of the two, which took about one hour by coach, but it was well worth it. The Trost organ, which Bach inspected and performed in 1739, is a magnificent instrument, and the concert was given by Felix Friedrich, who has some notable contribution to the organological discussion on this instrument. The tour of the beautiful castle and the cakes and coffee after the concert furnished the day very well. The second day of our organ tour was somewhat nearer, and the organs we visited weren’t as spectacular as that in Altenburg; yet it was the performance that I enjoyed most, especially by Gabrielle Wadewitz on the Hildebrandt organ. In both tours, we were accompanied by Winfried Schrammek who entertained us throughout with his expertise on Bach’s organs.

The Trost Organ in Altenburg The Richter organ in Pomßen The Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal

Another discovery in Leipzig was a young violinist Christian Tetzlaff who performed BWV 1004 and 1005 in the Gewandhaus in Late-Night Concert on Saturday the 24th. It opened nervously, but the tension soon turned positive from which a thrilling musical drama unfolded. His logic was tightly knit, which was further embellished with his awesome technique and imaginative power. Not everything was convincing, especially fast dance movements which Tetzlaff tended to rush slightly and had some untidy moments; but with his boldness, he shaped the piece so powerfully that I felt an overwhelming sense of gratification. He was another of my unforgettable discovery in Bachfest 2003.

Quickly looking back my four-day visit to Leipzig, there were a few more things that I feel ought to be mentioned. The Bachfest is organised by the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, which is directly next to the Thomaskirche, where I spent a day looking at some music manuscripts for my private research work.

During the festival, the Bach-Archiv hosted various events, and I attended a workshop given by Peter Wollny on issues relating to his forthcoming editions of the early works of C. P. E. Bach. This workshop itself was very informative and intellectually stimulating, which was made even more enjoyable by charming demonstration on the harpsichord played by Cornelia Osterwald (who was very cute!) To my surprise, the event was very well attended by the general public, who, after the workshop, threw many questions at Wollny. It was nothing but the proof of the high level of interests in the Bachs and their works attracted.


In sum, the Bachfest 2003 offered a huge variety of events, all so important for appreciating Bach’s music, i.e. concerts, museum exhibitions, tours of historical organs, workshops of latest research and great atmosphere, that it was the event that I am so glad to have been able to attend (even partially). I am already looking forward to the Bachfest 2004.

Published on line on 29 June 2003