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

My day at Bachfest: 23 May 2004

As the climax of the Bachfest 2004 drew near, there was a sense of great excitement in Leipzig. My choice for the day was the two of Bach’s greatest choral works, BWV 244 and 232.

No.66: Choral and Orchestral concert at Gewandhaus, Großer Saal, 11:00


J. S. Bach: St Matthew Passion in the version of F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s performance in Leipzig on 4 April 1841

Claron McFadden (Soprano); Annely Peebo (Alto), Wilfried Jochens (Tenor: Evengelist, Arias); Johannes Mannov (Bass: Pontious Pilate, Arias) Jouni Kokora (Bass: Jesus)

MDR Sinfonieorchester MDR Rundfunkchor
Conductor: Howard Arman

This was one of the highlights of this year’s Bachfest on the theme the “Bach and the Age of Romanticism”. In the Bachfest brochure, this concert was advertised to perform Mendelssohn’s 1829 version, the version which he performed in Berlin that marked the centenary of its first (then considered thus) performance. As we know today, it effectively ignited the Bach revival movement in Germany. Thus it was a little surprise to find out from the programme that we were to hear the version which Mendelssohn performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in April 1841. Sure enough, the piano is nowhere to be seen on the stage, and in stead there was a chamber organ on the stage, in addition to the main organ at the back of the stage, as shown in the images below.

When compared with the familiar 1736 version, the main features of this version and their effects on the day were as follows:

  1. Evangelist occasionally sang his part an octave lower, presumably to reduce the strain on his part; to our ears (who knows the work well), it sounded as if the singer was cheating!
  2. Evangelist’s recitative was accompanied by the continuo group consisting of two cellists playing 3-(or 4)-note chords; the chords were often articulated sharply in detached manner which sounded wonderful (though sometimes became problematically untidy).
  3. The work was cut in length, now lasting 2 hours only. The shortening of some of the da capo arias was disconcerting, while the omitted recitatives were not particularly so. Purely as a concert, this is a more acceptable length than Bach’s original which often exceeds 3 hours.
  4. The main organ was used very differently from Bach’s original intentions: it accompanied all the chorales (with the exception of the final occurrence of the passion chorale in A minor, which was sung very slowly in pp without instrumental accompaniment). It also played the cantus firmus tune ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’ in the opening choral fantasia. I found the organ accompaniment of chorales particularly disconcerting, as instead of giving body to the sound texture, it erased the vocal ensemble with the irritating tinny / hissy noise (though it may simply be the problem of registration), hence ruining the reflective mood of the movements.
  5. Clarinets were used in place of oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia, changing the sonority of instrumental ensemble considerably.
The organ at the back of the stage

The chamber organ on the stage

Despite all the above-mentioned points for reservation, the performance was overall very enjoyable and satisfying. I was particularly impressed by the choir, their well-controlled power and delicate articulation. No.15 ‘Sind Blitze’ was particularly impressive (until where the organ entered and destroyed the mood).

The soloists were excellent, too, particularly two ladies. There was a slight tendency to drag in their arias – which may be intentional, emulating the 19th century performance – but their singing reached the soul of many listeners. To me the most heartfelt movement was no.20 ‘Erbarme dich’ with superb violin obbligato.

No.70: Closing concert at Thomaskirche, 20:00

View from my seat
  For the closing concert of Bachfest, no other work is more fitting than the B-minor Mass (BWV 232), Bach’s “opus summum”.

As expected, the Thomaskirche was full, and among the audience there was a general mood of anticipation from the 86-year old Eric Ericson, the conductor of the day.


J.S. Bach: h-Moll-Messe BWV 232

Solisten: Jenny Olson (Sopran), Marie Alexis (Sopran), Marie Sanner (Alt), Johann Christensson (Tenor), Gunnar Birgersson (Bariton), Ove Petterson (Bass), Eric Ericson Kammerchor, Drottningholm Barockensemble, Eric Ericson

The majestic opening of the Kyrie was warm and well balanced; within a few seconds I was convinced that it would not be a disappointing performance. The tempi Ericson took were not as slow as one may have anticipated; in fact the whole performance took two hours only. The ensemble was tight and colourful, and although there were untidy moments, the orchestra – individuals as well as ensemble – really was excellent. More problematic were the balance between orchestra and choir (which must be due to the way they were positioned in the back balcony) and the performance of vocal soloists in the early part of the work, e.g. imbalance of two sopranos in ‘Christe eleison’, the erratic opening melody of ‘Laudamus te’ (2nd soprano), and a monotonous ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ (bass), to name but three.

In spite of these occasional disappointments, the performance as a whole was gratifying, which was shared by the majority of listeners who responded in standing ovations at the end.

Yo Tomita

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