Thursday, 4 January 2018
Ending and beginning with Bach
This year's attempt to play a Bach cantata on every appropriate Sunday and holy day of the year stands a better chance of lasting than my 2013 attempt, which fizzled out at Easter because I hadn't ordered up the right CDs in time (I could have done it via YouTube, but I was too sound- and performance-fussy). With the Hänssler box of Rilling's Bachakademie Edition to hand, and a good online guide to what cantatas should be heard/performed when, I'm all set. I describe how I came round to Rilling, with his superb team of soloists led by Arleen Auger, a choir projecting the meaning of the German texts and various magnificent oboes, in a feature on The Arts Desk.
Properly the listening should have begun at advent, but I started with the perfect aria, "Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn", launching BWV 132, from Auger with oboe obbligato, the day before Christmas Day, and then followed the seasonal route with individual cantatas rather than those making up the Christmas Oratorio. I've made due notes, but should start here by observing the latest two beauties, BWV 28 "Gottlob! Nun geht des Jahren Ende" on New Year's Eve and BWV 171, "Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm", which we listened to on Jill's Bose up in Southrepps on New Year's Day, aka the Feast of the Circumcision or Snip Day. Apologies if in the ensuing I don't dwell much on the text - I shall when Bach illuminates the words in a special way.
Again, Auger led the way, heralded by striking figures from two oboes and oboe da caccia in harmony, in BWV 28, composed in Bach's third year at Leipzig for the end of 1725. There's a double whammy of glory here - the ensuing motet treatment of a chorale is one of Bach's most giddying contrapuntal inspirations, and Gardiner had it performed at the very end of his 2000 Bach Pilgrimage. A tenor recit is haloed by strings and leads to a dancing duet; the final chorale is enhanced by brass (cornet and three trombones).
BWV 171 comes after the three Leipzig cycles and was first performed on New Year's Day 1729. The opening choral fugue starts in old-fashioned style, but the entry of the first trumpet with the theme is a real wake-up call. In Gardiner's words, 'the music suddenly acquires a new lustre and seems propelled forwards to a different era for this assertion of God's all-encompassing dominion and power'. Violin obbligati enrich the tenor and soprano arias (the latter adapted from a number in a secular cantata where the instrument illustrates a 'gentle wind'), while there's typical originality from Bach in the bass's arioso-recitative, with striking illumination from the two oboes. As in BWV 28, but even more strikingly, the brass adds glory to the final chorale.
The above photos of Leipzig's Thomaskirche were taken on what turned out to be a wonderful trip just before Christmas, ostensibly to see and write about the Blüthner Piano Factory - it was enlightening, and write I shall anon - but which opened up to embrace two performances at the Opera (already described lower down the blog) and an afternoon/evening at large in the centre of town.
I won't deny that I got pleasantly teary sitting as near as I could to Bach's grave in the Thomaskirche chancel. His bones had been dug up from the cemetery of the Johanniskirche, placed inside the church in 1900 and moved here following that church's destruction in World War Two in 1949 (it is perhaps even more shocking that the Soviets dynamited the University Church, where Bach was director of holiday services, as late as 1968).
At last I completed the journey which had begun with the unforgettable performance of the B minor Mass by Collegium 1704 around the font where Bach was baptised in Eisenach.
So much has happened to honour Bach in the last few decades. The Nikolaikirche was stripped of the Baroque refurbishing which the composer would have known during his tenure in the 1880s; further re-Gothicization, returning the 'hall' church to how it looked in 1496, took place in the early 1960s. But the biggest restoration took place in time for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death on 28 July 2000. Much of the funding for this and other projects has come from the Thomaskirche-Bach 2000 Assocation, and it's heartening to see the list of names involved in the state-of-the-art Bach Museum opposite the church.
The Bachs lived in the old St Thomas School, which no longer survives, but this house at Thomaskirchof 16 was the residence of their good friends the Boses, a merchant family which had the 16th century building refurbished in Baroque style. The beautifully designed museum rooms are mostly geared towards education about the essence of Bach's music and his life, with plenty of listening posts, but they do include a chest which was identified as late as 2009 as coming from Bach's household (thanks to a seal)
and the restored organ console from the destroyed Johanneskirche at which Bach played in 1743.
There's a nicely displayed room of musical instruments to complement the ones to be seen in the Thomaskirche, including this handsome viola d'amore.
Holiest of holies, though, in the 'Treasure Room' is a magnificent bequest, by far the more brilliant of the only two portraits of Bach painted in his lifetime by Leipzig artist Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 174 and showing Bach holding a score entitled ‘Canon triplex à 6 Voc: per J. S. Bach’. It was bequeathed to the Leipzig Bach Archive by American musicologist and philanthropist William H Scheide, who died last November aged 101 (the other work, far duller, is in the main city museum, which I didn't have time to visit).
This is manuscript heaven, too. The full autograph score and the individual parts of the Cantata BWV 20, 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort', can be seen in the museum together for the first time ever. The former is in a superb little exhibition on Bach and Luther, finishing on 28 January, which also includes a grand Luther Bible with Bach's name inscribed in his own hand.
I left the Museum after dark, though there was abundant life in town as the Leipzigers flocked to the stalls of the Christmas Market, which spreads outwards along most streets from the central Markt. And I did just manage to see the outlandish interior of the Nikolaikirche, redone long after Bach was master there, between 1784 and 1797, in neo-classical style by J F C Dauthe. The palm columns are something else.
Handsome as it unquestionably is from the exterior, the Nikolaikirche is celebrated now as the peaceful source of protests which led to the fall of the East German regime in Autumn 1989. The Rev. C Führer's description of those events in the green pamphlet is movingly phrased, especially as it heads towards the quiet denouement of 7 October:
...the prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration. Shortly before the end, before the Bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. The solidarity between church, art, music and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days.
The prayers for peace ended with the Bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred.