As though by divine intervention, the pressure-cooker weather in Leipzig last weekend finally broke just as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and The Monteverdi Choir launched into the cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 20 (“O, eternity, you thunder-word”). Outside the Nikolaikirche, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled and the sky darkened as the perils of eternal damnation were painfully delineated by the choir. Plainly, God felt Bach’s message needed underlining.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting in the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig © Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting in the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig
© Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes

All this heat matched the intense nature of the 2018 Leipzig Bach Festival’s opening weekend, a marathon series of concerts presenting 33 of the “best” cantatas, spanning the entire Christian year in 48 hours. Gardiner, who is president of the Leipzig Bach Archive, confessed to some frustration when he undertook the international Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000 as he had to keep moving on to the next piece, with no time to reflect and re-examine. Out of that frustration grew the idea that the best should be revisited over an intense period in Leipzig. He would share that endeavour with conductors Ton Koopman, Maasaki Suzuki, Hans-Christoph Rademann, and Thomaskantor Gotthold Scwarz, all of whom combine outstanding scholarship with consummate musicianship.

As Koopman remarked at a press conference beforehand, Bach’s so-called “town musicians” must have been supremely accomplished players and singers, such is the quality and complexity of the music their Kantor gave them, week after week. Gardiner cautioned that, as they were created for the liturgy, cantatas would never have been performed back-to-back in this manner. “So it’s an intense experience for both performers and audience – especially for the audience sitting on hard church seats...”

Choosing those 33 had been a painful process for Gardiner, Michael Maul, artistic director of the festival, and Professor Peter Wollny, but it pulled together a fascinatingly varied programme, judging by the two Monteverdi Choir concerts I attended.

Gardiner brought his customary attention to detail to bear on the truly majestic opening to the Advent cantata Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 61 (“Now come, saviour of the gentiles”), where Bach borrows style from Lully and improves upon it. Particularly impressive among the soloists drawn from the choir were bass Peter Harvey and tenor Ruairi Bowen, his gentle, understated delivery perfect for the intimate acoustic of the Nikolaikirche.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Orchestra © Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Orchestra
© Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes

The gloriously exciting opening chorus in Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! BWV 70 (“Watch! pray! pray! Watch!”) had the audience pinned to those hard seats from the outset; even the cool balm of Reginald Mobley’s sweet countertenor aria could not take the heat out this performance.

But it was not all plain sailing. Gardiner interspersed the cantatas with two motets, but appeared to cut Jacobus Gallus’ Jerusalem, guade gaudio magno in half and the little Schutz madrigal Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding was so tiny it was hardly worth including.

The next night I was transfixed, first by Michael Niesemann’s beautifully poised oboe solo in the sinfonia that opens Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12 (“Weeping, lamenting, grieving, trembling”)  and then by the desolation of its Lotti-like opening chorus, sung with such power and musicianship by the choir. There was more trumpet and drum excitement in O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe BWV 34, (“O eternal fire, O source of love”), but Mobley was less assured here, wobbling a little in some passages. Stentorian bass Alex Ashworth, however, showed no such hesitation in his declamatory recitative “Erwählt sich Gott die heilgen Hütten”. Thrilling stuff.

 

London will hear 12 of the Ring of Cantatas on 15th-17th June when Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists appear at the Barbican.

Stephen’s travel to Leipzig was funded by Nicky Thomas Media.

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