Rare is the chance for Aucklanders to hear period instruments at all, let alone Bach’s masterpieces played on them. Age of Discovery has been active since 2006, dedicated to performing pre-19th-century music on instruments of the period. Leaving aside the thorny questions of authenticity and composer’s intent, there is something so breezy and vibrant about the sound of Age of Discovery’s instruments that it was a joy to behold. The group’s stated intention with this concert was to in some part recreate the atmosphere of Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig where Bach’s Coffee Cantata was likely first performed. Rather than the standard Concert Chamber stalls, the audience was seated at tables and coffee and cakes were served free to all (I can’t claim to be a food reviewer but included was a most exquisite frosted doughnut with raspberry jam). Director James Tibbles encouraged the audience to act like a coffee-house audience of the day would have; to chat and enjoy coffee refills even while the music was playing. Mercifully few audience members took him up on this, most preferring to remain in their seats to enjoy the marvellous music making on offer.

Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig; engraving by Georg Schreiber
Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig; engraving by Georg Schreiber

Tibbles sees the Coffee Cantata as something like a precursor to opera buffa, and accordingly, the performance was semi-staged, with a table and coffee as props and all three singers in 18th-century costume. While the singers did little in the way of interaction with one another, there was a genuineness and sense of involvement from each of them that made the piece seem more dramatically engaging than its slender premise might suggest. Revolving around a father’s attempt to convince his daughter to quit her coffee addiction, it makes for a welcome change from one’s usual cantata experience and has some interesting resonance in our own coffee-drenched era. The daughter Lieschen’s comment that without her coffee three times a day she would “shrivel up like a piece of roast goat” was certainly audibly appreciated by those audience members around me.

Pick of the performers was Jayne Tankersley as the coffee-addicted daughter Lieschen. The voice has the “straight”, vibrato-less tone that one hears so much of in period performance, but there is also a great deal of warmth and variety of phrasing. The coloratura was gamely conquered and pitch was incredibly accurate, often a difficulty for singers of her type. Her high notes on “heute” in the aria “Heute noch” pealed like bells out into the hall. Her performance was also well acted; a certain petulance in the voice in the exchanges with her father helped bring Lieschen’s character to life. After some co-ordination problems in his first aria, Ian Campbell made a steady father as Schlendrian, coping extremely well with the vocal demands for a singer with Escamillo and Tonio in his repertory. Tenor Lachlan Craig had much less to do but brought a fresh and plangent voice to his recitatives – sounds like he could make a good Evangelist in one of Bach’s passions sometime in the future.

The Concerto for three keyboards, BWV1063 is thought be derived from an earlier, now lost, concerto for a melodic instrument, perhaps transcribed for Bach’s sons. I must confess I find this work less striking than some of Bach’s other multi-keyboard concertos, though the wealth of invention is still high. The lilting central “alla siciliana” movement is particularly gorgeous. In this performance, it was difficult to tell in some sections which soloist was playing from sound alone. Regardless, and the odd fumble aside, it was well performed by all involved; the virtuosic runs held no terror for these performers. Aside from director James Tibbles, the other two soloists were 20-year-old Edward Giffney and 21-year-old Grace Francis – an ensemble piece such as this is a fantastic way to showcase some of New Zealand’s best young early music talent. Director (and first harpsichord) James Tibbles coaxed a wonderfully light and breezy sound from his band in both works (a little dodgy string intonation at the outset aside) – special mention should be made of traverso flute player Sally Tibbles’ obbligato work in the cantata.

In short, “Coffee with Mr Bach”, as the concert was whimsically titled, was a wonderful chance to hear period Bach performed with great flair and spirit. Some promising young talent was displayed and some truly spectacular singing was offered by Jayne Tankersley. Performing in the smaller Concert Chamber of the Auckland Town Hall gave a sense of intimacy that benefited the cantata in particular, as did the attempts to recreate the coffee-house atmosphere. The free coffee wasn’t a bad touch either.

****1