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

My day at Bachfest: 15 May 2004

It was a day with Martin Luther. I joined the concert tour to Wittenberg (10:00-18:00) which included the visit to the Castle Church and the Martin Luther Museum. One of the exhibits in the latter was the first edition of his hymnbook, showing the well-known tune ‘ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’. This edition contained a strange reading of the melody at the fifth note – d’ rather than e’. This puzzled me for the rest of the day!  
Kindly provided by Prof. Robin A. Leaver

No.4: Organ concert at the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, 11:00


J. S. Bach: Präludium und Fuge C-Dur, BWV 545
J. S. Bach: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 720
J. S. Bach: Präludium g-Moll, BWV 542/1
J. S. Bach: Fuge g-Moll, BWV 542/2

Sarah Herzer (Orgel), Thomas Herzer (Orgel)

Photo by Gert Mothes
  The organ concert was held in the Castle Church where Luther gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of Theology in the University of Wittenberg in 1512, where, five years later, he posted on one of its doors his famous 95 theses that triggered the Reformation movement. I learned that to my disappointment, neither the door or the organ was the original: while the former was replaced after the church was destroyed during the Thirty Year’s War, the organ was a recent one based on the disposition of Friedrich Ladegast (1818-1905).

The concert (or one might call it ‘demonstration’) was an interesting attempt, comparing the interpretation of the Romantic approach (which faithfully follows the theme of the festival) with what we now promote as a more fashionable ‘historically informed performance’ (HIP). The former—represented by the interpretation by Karl Straube’s 1913 performance—was performed first by Thomas Herzer, followed immediately by the latter performed by Sarah Herzer. Thus the same piece was performed twice in succession.  
Photo by Gert Mothes

BWV 545 – the differences between Straube and HIP versions were clear from the beginning: the former opened with organo pleno (as it seemed that the volume was more important consideration than the sonority) and ended with grand rallentando, while the registration was frequently changed during the course of the piece; in the latter, the performance was well articulated, giving fresher feeling, as the tempo was more steady and speedy, while the registration was fixed and set on the quieter side.

BWV 720 – similar differences were observed: in the Straube version, tempo, register, ornamentation, and phrase shaping were exaggerated, while in the HIP version, a quicker and more stable tempo was chosen.

BWV 542/1 – again, the Straube version started with organo pleno; the 2nd section was played terribly slowly with the choice of dull, dim registration; the 3rd section was performed with organo pleno again, using the swell pedal. The HIP version, in contrast, chose the modest choice of stops, creating a little dimmer sound world; the 2nd section was performed much more quickly (which was more acceptable speed to me) with quieter registration, though the contrast was not too stark; the most distinct feature of this interpretation was the sharply defined phrasing.

Overall, this performance demonstration—performing the same piece twice, contrasted only by the historically ‘presented’ performance—was an interesting attempt, but it gives certain doubt as well: after all, it is performed on the same organ, same temperament (and in need of tuning!), same acoustic space, same audience, and above all, without having a context for performance. The programme was also felt to be too long for this type of event of experimental nature, esp. where the church was very cold that day.

No.9: Orchestra concert in Gewandhaus, Großer Saal, 20:00


R. Wagner: Andante ma non troppo, un poco maestoso. From: Sinfonie c-Dur, WWW29
F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Konzert As-Dur, WoO
J. S. Bach: Konzert d-Moll, BWV 1063
F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Sinfonie Nr. 5 D-Dur, op. 107 (Reformationssinfonie)

Robert Levin, Ya-Fei Chuang, Eckhart Kuper (fortepianos)

Concerto Köln
Conductor: David Stern

Photo by Gert Mothes
  The main attraction of this concert was the use of early instruments; the audience expected to hear the performance how Bach’s music sounded like in the 19th century.

The concert opened a little nervously with Wagner; but the audience was very quickly assured and entertained by the conductor of the day, David Stern, whose confident and energetic leadership was to be remembered.

The climax came rather early with Mendelssohn’s double piano concerto. It was truly a memorable performance. There were a few minor ensemble hiccups in the opening movement (e.g. disjointed dialogues of rapid passagework by the two pianists, as they seemed to have had communication problems due to the way their eye contact seemed obstructed by the music stand on the pianos; there was also the problem of volume where the fortepianos were easily overpowered by a modest-size orchestra). But then, the performance went into the higher gear as the ensemble got heated up. There were many lovely moments in the 2nd movement (Alla Siciliana) and in the finale, their playing was absolutely beautiful and breathtaking.

Photo by Gert Mothes

The only Bach piece was the D-minor concerto for 3 claviers (BWV 1063) using the instruments used in the day of Mendelssohn. According to the programme note (Uwe Wolf), Mendelssohn was the first pianist (together with Clara Wieck and Louis Rakemann) who performed this piece in the 19th century – in November 1835 at this venue, Leipzig Gewandhaus. Now with a smaller orchestra with increased number of fortepianos, the balance of ensemble was excellent.

To my ears, however, the sonority of fortepiano sounded unfamiliar: the warm, wooden timbre of the instrument does not seem to gel well in the texture of the piece. It should perhaps be appreciated as how Bach’s works were performed in the mid-19th century and how, as the instruments were redesigned and performance techniques were changed, the way they were received went through significant changes over the years.

The grand finale of the concert of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, with was performed with both delicacy and boldness. The Luther’s tune, which was hanging over from the tour of Wittenberg, appeared in glorious form, a marvellous conclusion of the day! David Stern’s highly exquisite leadership was all clear to see and hear. It was certainly one of the most memorable days of the festival.

Yo Tomita

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