This concert of cantatas for the first Sunday in Advent (although performed in this case on the Saturday) presented a programme in which almost all pieces were by a single composer, and all but one based on the same piece of plainchant. You might think that such a programme could not hold the audience’s interest for the duration of a full-length concert: you could not be more mistaken.

Nederlandse Bachvereniging © Marcel van der Vlugt
Nederlandse Bachvereniging
© Marcel van der Vlugt

The piece in question was the fourth-century Advent hymn Veni redemptor gentium, composed by St Ambrose. In the 16th century, Martin Luther translated this hymn into German as “Nun komm der Heiden heiland”, simplifying the melody and publishing it as a chorale in 1524 in the Erfurt Enchiridion, a collection of Lutheran hymns. It has been traditionally performed on the first Sunday in Advent and was used by Bach as a basis for several cantatas and organ pieces.

The concert, at the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam, opened with the dramatic Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV 535, played by Leo van Doeselaar on the organ built for the Waalse Kerk in 1734 for Christian Muller. Though some parts of the organ had to be restored in the 20th century, most of it dates back to 1734, and some parts even remain from the Waalse Kerk’s first instrument, built by Nicolaas Langlez in 1680. Gustave Leonhardt, a towering figure in the historical performance movement, was organist at the Waalse Kerk for many years, and made important Bach recordings on this instrument.

Celebrated organist Leo van Doeselaar gave a magnificent account of the prelude and fugue, the only piece not based on “Nun komm”, composed in the unpredictable and virtuosic stylus fantasticus. Indeed, magnificence was a word that sprung to mind frequently through the concert, both in reference to the playing and the uncompromising grandeur of the works themselves. BWV 659, a chorale prelude from Bach's Leipzig preludes, builds slowly and solemnly over a walking bassline, as the three upper voices of the counterpoint become ever more richly ornamented. Van Doeselaar used the organ's 18th-century trumpet stops to powerful and splendid effect.

BWV 660 opens with the first notes of the melody “Nun komm der Heiden heiland” stated solemnly in the bass-line before it is swiftly elaborated on with a two-part canon and a series of extended trills in the upper voice. BWV 661 gives the most richly decorated version of the melody, adding voices from the top down, till the richness of all four parts together fills the church with stunning power. The complex immensity of Bach’s organ works was effectively juxtaposed with the starkness of plainchant, when at moments nicely judged to provide maximum contrast, the soprano and tenor soloists performed the central hymn, in its original and Lutheran versions.

The vocal soloists all performed with feeling and skill. Young soprano soloist Zsuzsi Tóth especially charmed with her pure and soaring voice, shown to lovely effect in the serenely joyful aria “Auch mit gedämpften” from the first cantata, Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36). The solo violin in this aria was beautifully performed by leader Shunske Sato. Tóth’s simple, wistful interpretation of “Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze” (BWV 61) was touching, with a feather-light approach to the phrasing.

Bass Peter Harvey delivered the text with expressive flair, and wonderfully subtle modulation of tone. His recitative “Siehe, ich stehe” (BWV 61) was gripping, while the strings, playing pizzicato, showed a gorgeously rich play of colour and dynamics, ending ultra pianissimo. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy impressed in the stately aria “Bewundert, o Menschen” (BWV 62) with his perfect delivery of the words and warm colouring. Countertenor Barnabás Hegyi had less to sing than the other soloists, but displayed a very sweet and pure voice, well matched in duet with Tóth’s soprano.

Under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, the fine instrumental soloists presented a very feeling and authoritative interpretation of the cantatas. The choir of the Nederlandse Bachvereniging sang with a beautifully pure, energised sound, effortlessly filling the church while preserving the clarity of the text. The differences between Bach’s settings made the recurrence of the chorale melody in three different contexts like the sight of a familiar face, lending a pleasurable coherence to the programme as a whole. The ordering of the cantatas also showed fine judgement, opening with the joyful Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36), and closing with Nun komm der Heiden heiland (BWV 61), with its grand French overture welcoming the King of Kings. This concert was recorded as part of the project “All of Bach”. The video and audio recordings of this major project to record Bach’s vast musical output will be made available online from May 2014.