by GRACE JOHNSON
The Bach Akademie Australia’s Music in the Castle of Heaven, conducted by Artistic Director Madeleine Easton, celebrates three hundred years since JS Bach’s appointment as Kantor in Leipzig, a position which would see music changed forever.
The position, which involved supervising and composing for church services and civic occasions, as well as teaching young students, led to some of Bach’s finest compositions. Over the 27 years of his appointment, the requirements of his position and his own faith inspired works of moving complexity and profundity.
But despite its mostly religious purpose, Bach’s music during this period captured the drama of opera and within it, the entire spectrum of human emotion. This is what BAA’s program aimed to capture, particularly as the festive season approaches.
The concert began with the chorale prelude In Dulci Jublio (In Sweet Rejoicing) BWV 729, a Christmas carol from the Middle Ages. Keyboardist, Nathan Cox delivered a tranquil and moving performance, playing the chords of the chorale in a slower tempo than usual.
But the real spirit of festivity began the cantata Unser mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) BWV 110, described as “music of pure joy.” Here, the orchestra’s exuberantly played dotted rhythms evoked the sound of laughter, also masterfully captured by the choir. But the highlight here was hearing the Akademie’s excellent soloists for the first time, with soprano Susannah Lawergren, tenor Timothy Reynolds, alto Hannah Fraser and bass Andrew O’Connor all featuring in the arias, recitatives and duets.
The aria for bass Wacht auf, ihr Adern und ihr Glieder, featuring trumpeter Leanne Sullivan, particularly showcased these musicians’ mastery of the style.
Alto Hannah Fraser melted seamlessly with the oboe d’amore of Adam Masters in the obbligato aria.
The next work took the soundscape from joyful exuberance to energetic virtuosity with the motet Singet dem Herrn BWV 225.
This motet is notable for its vibrancy but also its difficulty, due to Bach having written for the voice here as he would have for a violin or oboe. Mozart is said to have heard the same motet as he travelled through Leipzig and was deeply moved by the music, exclaiming: “Now, there is something one can learn from!” The work was expertly pulled off by the performers, accompanied by a smaller chamber group.
The second cantata on the program, Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesu, it is by you that my soul) BWV 78 was a strong contrast to the first, bringing with it a certain weight – the gravity of despair. Soprano Anna Sandström and alto Stephanie Dillon moved through the duet aria effortlessly. In the programme notes by Artistic Director Easton, she notes, “The first aria is well known for its exceptional charm with the ‘weak but eager steps’ depicted in the voices and ascending bass line as a symbol of the faithful hastening towards Jesus.” This sense of narrative is further crafted by bass Andrew O’Connor, compelling in the recitative Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab (the wounds, nails, crown, and grave).
The concert ended majestically with one of Bach’s most mature and popular cantatas, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) BWV140. The full-bodied sound in the closing chorale tied up a night full of richness with the final line“ewig in dulci jubilo” (forever in sweet rejoicing), ending as we began.