Music transcends borders and so “Bach without Boundaries” is the credo of the 29th edition of the International Bach Festival Schaffhausen, one of Switzerland’s leading classical music festivals. Founded in 1946, it has a venerable history, connecting music lovers from across the world in the historic medieval town nestled near the Rhine Falls, the biggest waterfall in Europe, to the north of the country. The 2022 festival connects the music of the past with the composers of today, with a number of world premieres, commissions and crossover projects taking inspiration from Johann Sebastian himself to ensure “Bach without Boundaries” transgresses national, musical, cultural and historical borders.

Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen
© zvg

There are some familiar names among the orchestras and ensembles featuring in the 2022 edition, notably Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano, Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques, René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and the Freiburger Barockorchester. 

Concerto Italiano’s concert features Rinaldo Alessandrini’s own revelatory transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, breathtaking in their dazzling virtuosity, along with other arrangements of his keyboard music. Alessandrini was at the forefront of the Italian period instrument crusade and his ensemble has a reputation for earthy, thrilling performances. 

Christophe Rousset
© Eric Larrayadieu
Created in 1991, Les Talens Lyriques are a little younger. Under Christophe Rousset’s direction, the group has established itself particularly in French repertoire, as one would expect from their name, taken from the subtitle of Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Fêtes d'Hébé. “Bach sans frontières” has a suitably French flavour, featuring music by François Couperin and André Campra but framed by Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite and his secular cantata Non sa che sia dolore, one of only two settings the composer made of an Italian text. Spanish harpsichordist Diego Ares also includes François Couperin in his “Europäische Meister” recital programme, pitting the Frenchman against Bach and Bernardo Pasquini. 

Bass Lionel Meunier directs the Freiburger Barockorchester in “Bach beflügelt” (Bach inspires), a programme of cantatas marking Ascension Day of expansive choirs, rising melodic lines and gleaming trumpets. The miracle of the Ascension also features in one of Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, giving an instrumental counterpoint to Bach and Telemann’s vocal works. 

Amandine Beyer and Ensemble Gli Incogniti give a concert of music by one of Bach’s most famous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel. The set of six symphonies for string orchestra catalogued Wq 182 were composed in Hamburg for Gottfried van Swieten and were widely popular in the early 19th century, serving as a model for Felix Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies. 

Experimental projects include Franz Danksagmüller’s “Broken Bach”, in which the Austrian composer combines organ and electronics in a live remix of Baroque music for organ and live electronics to create multiple compositions based on scientific, mathematical and demographic data. “Songs for a Promised Land” features the Prospero Consort juxtaposing Bach with music by Luigi Nono, his monody Djamila Boupacha, Franz Tunder’s An Wasserflüssen Babylon, inspired by Bach’s cantata of the same title which also features in the programme, and the world premiere of Swiss composer Lukas Stamm’s Ultimi Cori per la Terra Promessa for vocal quartet and Baroque ensemble based on texts by Giuseppe Ungaretti. 

Els Biesemans
© Tatyana Jenni
Founded in 2001 in Montreal, Ensemble Constantinople presents an intriguing programme entitled “Mathematik & Mystik”, which combines Bach’s music with poetry from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, narrated in Persian. 

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with music by Hildegard of Bingen and Giovanni Gabrieli featuring in the opening concert which features choral music from the Schweizer Vokalconsort with instrumentalists from Cardinal Complex and the Zürich-based SIBJA Saxophone Quartet. 

The final day of the festival is devoted to unadorned, unfiltered Johann Sebastian. Els Biesemans leads an intimate chamber performance of The Musical Offering before René Jacobs and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and RIAS Kammerchor Berlin close the festival with the magnificent Mass in B minor, one of the towering choral works of the Baroque – or indeed any – musical period. 

There’s plenty to explore in Schaffhausen, whose nearest airport is Zürich, although Basel is under two hours away by car or train. It’s worth noting that the festival offers a ticket plus hotel deal (see their website for more information) and there are also transfers by bus or boat to some of the festival’s venues. As well as enjoying the concerts, visitors can take part in guided tours devoted to the Baroque era and tours of the Museum zu Allerheiligen's special exhibitions. And although Bach may have preferred beer, don’t miss out on the Pinot Noir wines produced in the nearby Blauburgunderland vineyards and raise a glass to Johann Sebastian. 

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This preview was sponsored by the International Bach Festival Schaffhausen