sat 13/07/2024

theartsdesk in Thuringia: Easter with Bach | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Thuringia: Easter with Bach

theartsdesk in Thuringia: Easter with Bach

Revelatory performances in the holy land of the greatest composer

In the holiest of holies: Collegium 1704 perform the B minor Mass in EisenachCollegium 1704, Alegre and Poltera images by Jens Haentzschel

Sing, dance, breathe: those are the three imperatives for successful Bach performance, and three superlative interpretations at the Thuringia Bach Festival glorified them in excelsis.

Frankly, I would have thrilled even to a merely good performance of the B minor Mass given its location in Eisenach’s Georgenkirche, which is to Bach lovers what Bethlehem is to Christians (not that many folk can't be both; and besides, can there really be blasphemy when it comes to the ultimate genius among composers, human as he undeniably was?).

There, among the instrumentalists of Prague’s Collegium 1704, stood, like a larger kettledrum that wasn’t going to be played, that very font in which Johann Sebastian was baptized on 23 March 1685, and nearby the pulpit in which Eisenach’s other famous inhabitant, Martin Luther, preached on his fateful return from the Diet of Worms in 1521 (both visible in the church’s interior pictured below). As has been said of the remote Moravian countryside where Janáček and Freud were born only a few miles apart, there must have been something in the water (though Luther wasn't born in Eisenach, he received a significant part of his education there).

Georgenkirche interiorThuringia, Germany's heartland, famous for the rolling forest in the south to which Eisenach provides one of several gateways, is rich in places where the peripatetic JSB left a significant mark. Having had his musical grounding, like Luther, in the Georgenkirche choir, and then losing his mother and father in less than a year, Bach moved at the age of 10 to live with his eldest brother, Johann Christoph, nearby in Ohrdruf – now very much a one-horse town reminding us still of its East German decay, not least in the typically hideous glass and painting of the Trinity Church, where I encountered the only dud among the six concerts I attended (no comment). I wish I’d been around at the right time to attend an event in Arnstadt, where the 18-year-old Bach inspected the newly built organ and spent nearly three years as organist. In some events, the audience takes the same walk the Bach family did from the tiny church in which he married his first wife, Maria Barbara, at Dornheim, only a mile away.

Our base, a calm and easy-going one, was in Weimar, a town boxing well above the weight of its population in terms of artistic heritage: Bach competes for attention here with later habitués such as Liszt, Schiller and – most famously of all – Goethe, whose main residence and his summer house in the beautiful English-style park along the river Ilm are national shrines and whose rather ordinary little poem to one of the oldest of trees is celebrated in a Gingko Museum (for which read shop). Weimar has a degree of liveliness owing to the students at the Franz Liszt Academy and the fabulous Bauhaus University, its designs a mix of founder Henry van der Velde’s Jugendstil and the results of the famous school’s establishment here by Walter Gropius in 1919, the year of the ever-so-promising but ill-fated Weimar Republic’s ratification at the Court Theatre.

Himmelsburg Chapel 1660Bach came here as court musician, first very briefly in 1703 and then for a fraught eight and a half years during which he was tossed around between a wrangling uncle and nephew, the ghastly pedant Duke Wilhelm Ernst, who occupied one palace, and 21-year-old Ernst August, who lived in the Wilhelmsburg castle linked to it by a bridge. Only the tower rooms of that original building remain now, so we can see where Bach was imprisoned by the old curmudgeon at the end of his posting before he took off to a more benevolent patron in Cothen (the reasons, like so much in Bach’s life, remain unclear). The neoclassical wing of the palace is a beauty, as I was to discover in a revelatory recital there, but oh that we could still see the 1660 chapel, destroyed along with the music library in the fire of 1774, where the musicians poured down their music on the court from a high balustraded gallery (pictured above).

Our Easter Sunday service was held instead in the Stadtkirche of St Peter and Paul, affectionately known as the Herderkirche after the town’s great poet-theologian Johann Gottfried Herder. Its great glory, very much the centrepiece of major anniversary celebrations this year, is the crucifixion altarpiece of Lucas Cranach, his last work, completed after his death – like Herder, he has a monument here – by his son in 1555.

Herderkirche in WeimarThe church was packed with young and old, Lutheran hymns were sung and an amateur group punctuated the service with movements from the A major Mass among the four shorter settings Bach made in the mid- to late-1730s.

On Easter Saturday a six-hour train journey, delayed by weekend works, had brought me to serene Weimar from the mixture of rough and dainty, deep culture and Russian bling in Baden-Baden – not exactly lovable, but still functioning much as it did when Dostoyevsky lost a fortune there and wrote about it in The Gambler – in time for Jeremy Denk’s Goldberg Variations. No special venue for this, but the plain wooden interior of Weimar’s Kongress Centrum’s concert hall worked acoustic wonders and the spacious foyers look out on the Weimarhallenpark’s expanse of water and lawns.

I suppose I should admit to a degree of playing safe in the time I chose to come. Other events in the Bachwochen have showcased, or have yet to showcase, less familiar elements, not least the constant juxtaposition of Bach with the future generations he inspired, from Mendelssohn with his performing version of the St Matthew Passion performed in Meiningen on Good Friday to contemporary composers. This, the testing of unusual as well as obvious venues, and the avoidance of significant ones with hopeless acoustics like the main church in Mühlhausen, constitute the essence of the festival as the current director, Christoph Drescher, sees it. I may only have caught a whiff of that old-versus-new manifesto, but the auguries of what I wanted to hear were too good: just as success was guaranteed by Collegium 1704’s B minor Mass CDs, sent to me by an enthusiastic Czech music-lover, pressed on theartsdesk's Graham Rickson who loved it and treasured ever since, there could similarly be no way that Denk’s extraordinarily lucid, fresh and dynamic approach to the Goldberg Variations – preferable to Gould’s from my perspective – would fall short of his magnificent recording.

Jeremy Denk Goldberg VariationsThe degree of concentration from a rapt audience and the drama of sitting transfixed for close on an hour and a half as Denk presumably took even greater freedoms and heightenings of the relationships between variations has fixed this in my memory as an unforgettable concert-hall experience. I could write a book, and I hope Denk will, about the relationship between dance and dream, the significance of inner lines like I’ve never heard them before, above all the still shocking modernity of Variation 25. Only Bach himself could rival this in terms of harmonic invention.

The ultimate cornucopia was to come, in terms of colour and mood, in the Eisenach B minor Mass. We decided to take off immediately after the Easter Sunday service to explore a nearby national icon. The Wartburg, high on a wooded hill 45 minutes’ walk from the centre of Eisenach, has a fourfold, almost mythic, significance: as the site of the famous Minnesingers’ contests of the 12th century; the sanctification of the frankly rather dull-sounding Elizabeth of Hungary – wife of Landgrave Ludwig IV; Martin Luther’s voluntary exile here from 1521-22, disguised as "Junker Jörg" and making his first crucial German translation of the New Testament; and Wagner’s fusing of the first two legendary elements in Tannhäuser.

Wartburg in EisenachBy the time Wagner visited, much of the castle had already had a kitschy German nationalistic makeover, culminating in the Great Hall – Liszt advised on improving the acoustics – but still, I’d very much like to have heard accordionist Denis Patkovic’s Goldbergs-plus-Tiensuu recital. Alas, it clashed with Denk’s performance on another instrument which would have taken Bach by surprise (I like to think that the great original would have welcomed the fresh sonoroties offered by both newcomers).

As in the Denk recital, we had front row seats for the B minor Mass. I’ve noticed that overseas concert organizers seem to think it’s a VIP honour, which it was for the Goldbergs but not exactly for getting the overall picture of larger forces. We found ourselves next to the flutes and oboes: fascinating for seeing what Bach does with their inner parts, including an extraordinary stretch of staccato quavers at one point, but not best for balance. At least we were enveloped in the intelligent youthfulness of these delightful singers and players. The vocal soloists, all excellent, are drawn from a choir which has the professional brilliance of our native known quantities – The Sixteen, Monteverdi Choir, Academy of Ancient Music – but an extra degree of physical relish and, in the tenors, a lightness for the runs I’ve not heard anywhere else.

Collegium 1704 in EisenachNo wonder a lady standing in one of the galleries danced along to the livelier movements. Conductor Václav Luks brought new insights, but never mannerism, to phrasing and accents; the height of freshness, for me, came with the duet between the solo flute/recorder (uncredited, alas) and tenor Václav Čížek in the “Benedictus”. From our curious coign of vantage, too, it was wondrous to hear how the emphasis in character swam during the “Quoniam tu solus” between bass Marián Krejčík, two splendid bassoons, the horn and the antic double-bass who kept making one of the tenors laugh (but in a good way). The three trumpets were just glorious, never vainglorious. An instant standing ovation followed the surprise dying fall, to be rewarded by a reprise of the “Dona nobis pacem” relieved of its summing-up tension, and we reeled into the cold, sunny afternoon treading air. I’d put myself down to hear Carolin Widmann and the Munich Chamber Orchestra in Erfurt that evening, but cried off both that and the possibility of a Rosenkavalier in Weimar – which would have been my second in less than a week – pleading the need to digest such splendours.

By Easter Monday morning, and more sunshine, I was refreshed and took myself off to the Festsaal of the castle – designed in the early 1800s to showcase knowledge of Babylonian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Roman art – for something I’d normally give a wide berth: a harpsichord recital. But the artist, Alfonso Sebastián Alegre, who caught the festival’s eye last year in the Seville Baroque Orchestra’s Brandenburg Concertos, was not only as handsome as his surroundings but had a brilliant programme of Bach alongside Spaniards to offer, and a determination to present it, too, with charming demeanour in specially translated German.

Allegre harpsichord recitalBesides, great artistry works on any instrument and in any genre, and it was soon apparent in the syncopated dancing courtliness of Sebastian Aguilera de Heredia’s Obra de 8 tono alto (Ensalada) that there was to be nothing merely pretty about all this. Like all top organists and harpsichordists, Alegre (pictured above at the recital) makes his instrument breathe. The zenith came, rightly, at the end, in the flowing Prelude on Bach’s BWV 998. Before that, we had severity from other Spaniards Bruna and de Arauxo, more dancing from Scarlatti – I could listen to his sonatas all day, two were not enough – and a couple of direct, fascinating juxtapositons between a Bach Fantasia and Sinfonia on the one hand and two Spanish sonatas in the same keys. Two of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions brought a scintillating recital to a simple but ineffable conclusion.

The two other recitals I caught in the official programme ranged from disappointing to ordinary, but I was still glad to have sat in a gallery of Weimar’s Jakobskirche for Christian Poltéra’s Bach Cello Suites, interspersed with readings from the story of the “Mara” Stradivarius cello he plays, courtesy of his teacher Heinrich Schiff, by Ryo Takeda. The playing was hugely resonant but a little surgical, at odds with the wonderful warmth of this cosy little church-theatre with its high pulpit behind the organ – surely the most lovable of Weimar venues.

There was still an impromptu treat the next afternoon. Erfurt cried out to be seen – the big city (though hardly that in actual terms) to Weimar’s intimacy. Its cathedral of extraordinary grandeur is set on a hill with a dramatic flight of steps separating it from the only slightly less imposing Severikirche; unfortunately the approach was marred by a very noisy, smelly funfair at the foot of the rock. The shiplike chancel of the Dom was added by building out from the old nave in the late 14th century. It’s one of the most spectacular anywhere, with a breathtaking assemblage of late Gothic bench ends in the choir stalls, each figure – many with instruments – completely individual, and above them a huge array of old glass. Second World War bombs fell on the square below, but the shock would have shattered the windows; fortunately they had been stored away for safekeeping.

Silvius von Kessel in Erfurt's CruciskircheBach’s connection here is minimal, presumably because of the prevalent Catholicism. Chairman of the Thuringia Bach Festival and visiting professor at Weimar’s Liszt Academy Silvius von Kessel is the current organist. He gave us an after-hours improvisation on the Dom organ – starting with the Pilgrims' Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which Bruckner the organist would have applauded – before taking us over to a smaller-scale gem, the Cruciskirche, totally of a Baroque piece and possessed of what von Kessel calls one of the two finest 18th century organs in Germany. He pulled out all the stops, starting with a flute-imitating rarity, and underlined what a wonderful combination this organ offers of Bach-like gravitas and the capacity for Italian ornateness: a beautiful sound, in all registers (von Kessel at the console pictured above).

I can’t thank Silvius enough for his time and, just as precious, his utopian combination of erudition and enthusiasm. Under his guidance, Thuringia makes use of its year-round Bach status in the autumn when there’s a whole week around the International Bach/Liszt Organ Competition (would I might be in Erfurt on the night of 2 October when five master organists give consecutive recitals in five of Erfurt’s finest churches). Before that, in August, there’s the second Weimar Bach Cantata Academy under the venerable guidance of Helmut Rilling. With Bach, you always want to hear more. Carrying with me as I was John Eliot Gardiner’s supremely eloquent Music in the Castle of Heaven – to read from cover to cover rather than to merely dip into – and yearning to rediscover or hear for the first time the masterpieces he cites at the core of his book, the only lack I felt was that of not filling up at the wellspring of the cantatas. Let’s hope a lifetime is long enough to get to know each and every one. Onwards, then, to Leipzig.

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