REVIEW: MAGNIFICAT, BACH AKADEMIE
With graceful, discreet and precise conducting from Madeleine Easton, Bach Akademie brings rich life to Bach's allegorical music, from celestial heights to the depths of despair.
Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney Reviewed on 26 November, 2021
by Shamistha de Soysa on 27 November, 2021
The leader and founding Artistic Director of Bach Akademie Australia, Madeleine Easton, trades her seat at the first desk for the conductor’s rostrum in the ensemble’s celebratory Magnificat. Easton directs her hand-picked ensemble of Baroque experts comprising eight singers and 18 musicians performing on period instruments, led for this concert by Simone Slattery. The program comprises two works by J S Bach, the cantata O ewiges Feuer BWV 34 and Magnificat BWV 243, linked by three brief excerpts from Cantata No 6 of the Christmas Oratorio BWV 248. Easton brings to the performance her substantial performance experience and interpretive and musicological knowledge of Baroque music, gained from years of working with some of the elite period ensembles in Europe and the UK.
Two days short of Advent and with live performance returning, the mood is celebratory. The ensemble opens its account repurposing for the season the cantata O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O eternal fire, o source of love), composed for Pentecost Sunday and later used for a kick-up-your-heels style wedding cantata. It’s a neatly structured cantata for four voice parts in five movements. Themed on the constancy of eternal fire, peace and tolerance, it’s a piece for our times, its two outer choruses embracing a central alto aria flanked by tenor and bass recitatives. Busy semi-quavers, punctuated by heraldic trumpets and timpani, underscore the symbolism of flickering bursts of fire, and long pedal points illustrate eternity.
Hannah Fraser’s solo aria Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen, die Gott zur Wohnung ausersehn (It is well for you, you chosen souls), is beautifully mellow and gracefully phrased with muted strings and flutes, but, like Susannah Lawergren’s exquisitely rendered soprano aria from the Christmas Oratoriolater on in the evening, tended to be overshadowed by the instrumental playing despite the solos being sung from the front of the ensemble. The declamatory final chorus declaring peace with its extended instrumental passages is thrilling and brings this rendition to a splendid close.
JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a cycle of six cantatas which he began writing in 1734. They were performed respectively on the first three days of Christmas, on New Year’s Day and the following Sunday, with the sixth and final cantata being performed at Epiphany, twice on the day – early at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche and again at Vespers in the Thomaskirche. This three-excerpt pivot between the two bigger works sits well with its instrumentation and thematic material.
Lawergren sings with appealing delicacy and agility in her aria Nur ein Wink von sinen Händen Stürzt, her phrases alternating with long statements from the orchestra comprising oboe, strings and continuo. The recitative Als sie nun den König gehöret hatten from tenor Richard Butler leads to the chorale Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier sung with gentle strength, its columns of chords linked by graceful passing notes making up the simple yet powerful, evergreen melody.
The 12-movement Magnificat BWV 243 is one of a few pieces in which Bach uses the Latin text, all of which were written during his Leipzig years, with Magnificat being the first in 1723. Premiering at Christmas Day vespers in 1723, it is written (unusually) for five voice parts, created by writing two soprano lines. In 1733, Bach altered his first version, transposing down a semi-tone into the key of D Major – far more exciting and brilliant sounding for the trumpets and timpani – and, amongst other modifications, replaced the recorders with transverse flutes and the trumpet with two oboes in the tonus peregrinus (the reciting tone) of Suscepit Israel, resulting in a jubilant band of three trumpets, timpani, twi oboes, two flutes, string and continuo. Magnificat contains no recitatives, no da capo arias and the opening theme returns at the end closing the circle of creation, life and death. Bach scholar John Butt says, “The D major version is to be seen as part of the composer’s intention to produce definitive versions of his finest music.”
Easton challenged her performers with daring tempi. Instruments and voices work cohesively, keeping pace in iron-clad thirds and coloratura. It is a testament to the depth of talent in the choir that almost each individual steps out to perform a solo aria. Special nods to Andrew Fysh for his rendition of Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est and Stephanie Dillon for her performance of Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes. Other highlights include Lawergren’s Quia respexit humiltatem in partnership with obbligato oboe lament; the burdened sways of the alto/tenor duet Et misericordia from Anna Fraser and Richard Butler and the rumbling fugal entries of the chorus Sicut locutus est.
Easton’s conducting style is graceful, discreet and precise. She demonstrates increasing maturity as a conductor, her ensemble giving life to the richness of Bach’s allegorical music, from celestial heights to the depths of despair.