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  • Jane Downer


Bach Akademie Australia – Alleluja

Friday 26th March 2021 – Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Bach Akademie Australia’s celebratory programme for Easter was held in St Francis of Assisi’s Church in Sydney’s Paddington, the musicians performing from a semicircular marble dais, amid an attractively symmetrical setting of warmly lit column surrounds, with some befitting splashes of red and purple colouring.

I hope you will forgive my reviewing of the livestream in the order in which I heard it. Due to a technical issue, I was able to watch (but not hear) the concert until a little way into the motet, where jubilant sounds gloriously emerged. Bach’s motet for double choir and basso continuo Singet dem Herrn involves a mix of chorales and biblical text. The choirs here consisted of a single soprano, alto, tenor and bass singer. Each set of ‘SATB’ voices used the opening enthusiastic exhortation to sing – the rebounding word singet – to provide pronounced rhythmical energy, swapping musical phrases, often in antiphonal exchange. Director Madeleine Easton set a brisk tempo, with the singers measuring up to the music’s virtuosic demands, especially in the long melismatic lines and elaborate fugue, for a performance admirably imbued with spirit and finesse. Following all this hectic activity, a hymn tune in one choir alternated with a freer song in the other, giving rise to a sense of gentle reverence, furthered by the absence of instrumental accompaniment. The full complement of continuo (organ, harpischord, cello, bassoon and double bass) rejoined for the exceptionally pacy concluding paean Lobet den Herrn (Praise the Lord) with all eight voices uniting for a final exhilaratingly committed Halleluja!

Bach’s surviving Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C major BWV 1064 serves as the model for recent adaptations into what is believed to have been an original (lost) piece for three solo violins. In the key of D major, the re-worked Concerto certainly suits the bright tones and technical capabilities of violinists. The small band of orchestral strings gave a full-bodied and poised reading to the buzzing activity of the opening movement, with the three solo violinists allotted equal portioning of material, and the bassoon’s double-reed tones imparting a pleasurable added dimension. The fuller sections contrasted well with those requiring lighter treatment. The three soloists brought out the inherent melancholy of the minor-key Adagio unfolding their respective melodies together, sometimes over sparse single-voiced accompaniment. The final Allegro was exciting for its exuberance, unceasing motion and breathtaking extended solos for the three violin players, with Stephen Freeman setting off first in a passage ending with a sequence of high-speed leaping triplets. Matthew Greco was the next to dazzle with a longer section of strings of semiquavers and bariolage. Finally, first violinist Madeleine Easton’s showstopper culminated in a cadenza. The continuo section deserve commendation for their strong and consistently excellent rhythmic support throughout the virtuosic high spirits.

During the interval it was good to see the presence of an audience, mingling and chatting, after which the eight vocalists and orchestra, augmented by two baroque flautists, assembled for the final work. Bach’s Mass in A major sets the latin words of the Kyrie and Gloria to music from previously composed material, in particular movements from the composer’s own sacred Cantatas. The opening Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) with its gentle lilt had a beautifully prayerful quality, particularly enhanced by the gorgeously fluid and warm tones of flautists Mikaela Oberg and Jessica Lee. The Christe eleison was transfixing, meaningfully delivered by the solo voices – a bass first, followed by tenor, alto and soprano, with a final fugal entry made by the flutes, and all quietly underpinned by sustained strings. The second tutti Kyrie featured flutes playing so sensitively and delicately on the surface. The whole movement was altogether a perfect demonstration of Bach’s incredible and unsurpassed ability to make fugal writing sublime.

The Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), Laudamus te (We praise thee), and Glorificamus te (We glorify thee) extracts lavished sheer exuberance with upwardly dashing violins and impressive vocal agility. Interspersed, alto Hannah Fraser’s wonderfully serene Et in terra pax (And peace on earth), and the Adoramus te (We worship thee) sung reflectively by bass Andrew Fysh and tenor Richard Butler imparted moments of tender intimacy, while both flute players lightly and touchingly interlaced their parts. All united in thanksgiving before the aria set to Domine Deus, Rex coelestis (Lord God, heavenly King) was gracefully and warmly sung by bass Andrew O’Connor. Madeleine exchanged her conducting role for the violin obbligato with its lovely and lilting descending phrases echoed in the instrumental bass. Chloe Lankshear’s Qui tollis peccata mundi (Who takest away the sins of the world) was the ideal of devotional supplication, sung with calm control. Upper strings alone supplied the bass support, while the two flautists were exquisite as they overlapped and entwined in dissonant harmony, all affording a delivery which elicited a well-deserved show of applause from an audience member! Alto Hannah Fraser lent warm and mellow tones to a reposeful Quoniam tu solus sanctus (For Thou alone art holy), with violins and violas now combined in a unison obbligato line, before tutti forces featuring sparkling flutes headed joyously to the final Amen of the Mass.

And now, thanks to the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall for 72-Hour Delayed Viewing enabling an unabridged review! Bach’s Cantata BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden is a setting of Martin Luther’s vivid seven-versed hymn of praise on the subject of Christ’s resurrection. Languishing semiquaver figures and poignant dissonances were a feature of the short instrumental sinfonia, prefiguring the image of Christ lying in death’s bonds of verse 1. The mood soon gave over to joyful news of his rising from the dead, with the chorale tune ringing out bell-like in the sopranos, amid animated singing and playing, ending in a syncopated Halleluja! of truly frenetic proportions. For the second verse – a mournful contemplation of death – the drooping motif occurred in perpetuation by cellist Anton Baba and double bass player Kirsty McCahon underneath the faltering sighs of sopranos and altos on den Tod (Death). Tenors sang verse 3, where Death loses his sting and the violins were irrepressibly vigorous. Verse 4, concerning the contention between Life and Death, gives the chorale to the altos. The word Spott was convincingly taunting before a deeply descending Halleluja! Bass voices brought out all the grief of Christ on the cross above a fervently lamenting instrumental bass line in verse 5, while sopranos and tenors duetted in festive joy above an animated bass in verse 6, with a thankful chorale to end.

Bach Akademie Australia paid excellent attention to all the nuances of text and music in this captivating piece, extraordinary in its array of dramatic invention, and a superb example of Bach’s imaginative brilliance at embracing an emotional scope encapsulating the afflictions of sin and death to the joyous affirmation of life. All the more staggering when considered in light of the fact that Bach composed this Cantata at the age of 22.


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