13 November 2021, St Peter’s Cathedral
An uplifting performance celebrating life through the music and times of J.S. Bach.
The ensemble Adelaide Baroque has established a unique position in Adelaide’s musical scene, and has gained a substantial public following through its excellent and thoroughly informed performances of Baroque repertoire. This concert, featuring some of Bach’s most popular works, was intended as a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the production of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concerti. However, changes to the anticipated program involved the omission of the originally planned Brandenburg Concerto No 6, Bach’s final in the series. Instead, we were treated to a cantata by Buxtehude and a homage to Bach by contemporary Adelaide composer Graeme Koehne to round out what amounted to an overview of Bach’s musical era and his legacy. Both the Buxtehude and Koehne works placed Bach’s immense oeuvre in a musical and historical context, confirming Bach’s pivotal position in Western music (as if any confirmation was still needed) and the broader significance of his work socially and culturally.
The evening opened with Bach’s Suite No 3 in D Major, BWV 1068, performed with its original instrumentation of strings and continuo — evidently Bach added trumpets, timpani and oboes in a later version. The original is a captivatingly mellifluous work for strings, and, led by outstanding Baroque violin specialist Simone Slattery, the ensemble’s playing was superb — tightly controlled and fluent, with all the delicious textures that can only be realised with period instruments. The suite’s second movement, ‘Air on a G String’, has become a musical cliché, but in this performance, it was recharged with all its ethereal grace and beauty.
The feature work of the evening was Bach’s secular cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202, usually known as the ‘Wedding Cantata’ but, given that its title translates as ‘Dissipate, you troublesome shadows’, it is more likely a celebration of the end of winter — it opens with wintry sounding strings and the commencement of spring is then heralded by the oboe. In nine parts alternating arias with recitatives, the work is a celebration of life itself, and guest soprano Emma Horwood’s nuanced and lyrical voice is perfectly suited to it. Perhaps the most engaging element of the concert was the aria ‘Phoebus eilt mit schnellen Pferden’, in which Horwood combined with cellist Thomas Marlin to create a magical web of rhythmic, interweaving lines.
Graeme Koehne’s To His Servant Bach God Grants A Final Glimpse, is a gracious piece that pays homage to Bach by adapting some of his characteristic devices, for example the walking rhythms often found in Bach’s music which suggest, in the context of this concert, the inevitability of fate and the cycles of life and death and the seasons. Originally written for cello, Koehne’s work has variously been adapted for string quartet, guitar ensemble, organ and orchestra and it proved here to work wonderfully for a Baroque ensemble.
According to scholar Dr Graham Strahle in his informative essay for the concert program, the young Johann Sebastian travelled to Lübeck (400 km, and on foot) to study with the aging master Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude’s Cantata Klaglied Muß der Tod den auch entbinden, Bux WV76 of 1674 (written prior to Bach’s birth), was produced for the composer’s father’s funeral. It was evidently scored for a countertenor, but in this rendition, and accompanied by strings and organ, Emma Horwood’s soprano voice suited it well, and she fully conveyed the intense emotions expressed in Buxtehude’s text. Sometimes known as ‘With peace and joy’, this cantata is a grief-filled lament by a bereaved son consoling himself with the idea of death as a transition to eternal life and wishing his esteemed father well in that afterlife.
The final work of the evening was a sparkling rendition of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Major, BWV 1043, written in Leipzig in 1730, a defining Bach work of energy and vitality, with violinists Slattery and Ben Dollman engaging in a dynamic interplay with the ensemble. Again, the playing was outstanding, and the bright allegro third movement provided an optimistic and life-affirming finale to the concert, challenging our preoccupation with the difficulties of the present-day.
Adelaide Baroque concerts are an education, and this event drew a parallel between Leipzig as the city of music of Bach’s day, and Adelaide, which has been designated a UNESCO City of Music, to emphasise the vital role music plays in daily life. The real lesson that emerged is that we should appreciate the life that we have while we have it.
— Chris Reid, Limelight