Bach und die Romantik – Bach and the Age of Romanticism
14 - 23 May 2004

My day at Bachfest: 14 May 2004

It was before dawn that I left home to take EZY262 (06:25) from Belfast International to London Stansted, and changed to FR8926 (09:55) to Altenburg. From there, the coach journey to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof was leisurely. When I arrived my hotel (Victor’s Residenz-Hotel), it was 2 pm. It was a trouble-free journey, and cost me about £125, which wasn’t too bad, thanks to the low-cost airlines!  
From Altenburg to Leipzig

Leipzig was warmer than Belfast, but the weather looked changeable. I was warned that it would be cold in the evening.

No.1: Opening Concert at Thomaskirche, 18:00


J. S. Bach: Sinfonia from Oster-Oratorium, BWV 249
J. S. Bach: Motette „Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“, BWV 225
J. S. Bach: Cantata „Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“, BWV 190
F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Cantata „Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied“, op. 91

Soloists: Ingeborg Danz (Alt), Jan Kobow (Tenor), Gotthold Schwarz (Bass)

Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester
Conductor: Georg Christoph Biller

Photo by Gert Mothes
  This year’s Bachfest Leipzig opened with the Sinfonia from the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) in the fully-packed Thomaskirche. With the visible presence of dignitaries, the general mood before the concert was one of nervousness with high expectation of a ‘magic’ from the select team of Leipzig musicians. To me the opening piece somewhat lacked fire and focus to satisfy this level of expectation: while the brass and wind sections shined with bright colours and well-defined phrases, the string section (esp. violin solo) lacked clarity and definition, which could have been improved dramatically by positioning differently in the balcony.
The Bach Medal presentation ceremony followed immediately. This year’s recipient was Helmuth Rilling, whose contribution to the promotion of Bach’s vocal works has been outstanding. Ever since I attended the International Bach Akademie in Stuttgart in 1985, I always regarded Rilling as one of my mentors. I was very pleased for him being honoured, and looked forward to his performance that was scheduled a few days later. (This expectation was indeed fulfilled: see my review of 19 May.)  
Photo by Gert Mothes

After a series of very long speeches (which must be shortened next year!), the concert resumed with three different settings of ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’, including one by Mendelssohn. It was a bold but interesting attempt, and certainly worth undertaking at the festival of this calibre, since this concert had a symbolic role to introduce the theme of the festival ‘Bach und die Romantik’. BWV 225 was a solid performance, but slightly on a rough side. The choir sung with great spirit and their balance was good; but I thought that the individual parts (esp. the soprano) needed much more careful shaping of phrases. Technically, this piece also seemed too difficult for the choir, particularly at large leaps where they were often not very secure; the swift 3/8 section was another area where the ensemble became shaky, though the continuo section was firm and provided good accompaniment throughout.

With BWV 190 I felt that the performers were settled and able to focus better. The ensemble was well-defined and balanced beautifully, with vivid contrast between powerful force and delicate details. It was certainly a much more enjoyable performance. The opening movement (reconstruction by Diethard Hellmann) sounded convincing, and all the soloists were very clear and grand, esp. Gotthold Schwarz who was particularly outstanding. The last piece, Mendelssohn’s op.91 was also shaped beautifully. Ensemble was well defined and exquisitely balanced, concluding the thoroughly satisfying evening.

Yo Tomita

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