Christopher Morley previews a weekend dedicated to the genius of the German composer.
Events celebrating Symphony Hall’s 21st anniversary move into a new phase this weekend with an extensive celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Though most of the performances will be given in Symphony Hall’s much older brother, Birmingham Town Hall, built less than a century after Bach’s death, one particularly special concert comes tomorrow night, when the Thomanerchor and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra perform the composer’s epic ‘St Matthew Passion’ in the birthday venue itself.
There are so many resonances here. The Gewandhaus Orchestra has claims to being the longest-established orchestra in the world (and Birmingham’s favourite adopted son, Felix Mendelssohn -- who gave the first performance of the ‘St Matthew Passion’ in “modern times” -- was one of its great conductors), and indeed gave Symphony Hall’s first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies under Kurt Masur five months after the hall opened.
The Thomanerchor is, of course, the descendant of the choir Bach directed for the last 26 years of his life in Leipzig’s St Thomas’s Church, for which he composed new music every week of the liturgical year, and for whose well-being and discipline he made himself responsible.
Conducting this performance will be Bach’s most recent successor in the title of Cantor, Georg Christoph Biller, who sang bass solo in an unforgettable account of the ‘St Matthew Passion’ given in that very church by the Birmingham Bach Choir, Richard Butt conducting, in 1989, a few months before Leipzig became one of the epicentres of the movement which brought the Berlin Wall down at the end of that year.
That visit from the Birmingham Bach Choir to Leipzig was an important element in the cementing of the twin-city relationship between the two cities. Councillor Denis Martineau, ex-Lord Mayor of Birmingham, spoke most eloquently at an afternoon meeting between Bach Choir dignitaries, one of Leipzig’s mayors, and the Birmingham Post, and I still have the tie that mayor gave me as a memento of that special occasion!
So the ‘St Matthew Passion’ moves to a date earlier in Lent, to be replaced in its traditional Good Friday slot by an opera so rooted in that reflective day, Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’, from St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev. And the previous evening, Maundy Thursday, Ex Cathedra will perform the other great Bach Passion, the ‘St John’; both of these in Symphony Hall.
And it is Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra which begins our Bach weekend tonight at Birmingham Town Hall, when the choir’s Consort and continuo give four of Bach’s spectacularly demanding motets, interspersed with two cello suites, Andrew Skidmore the soloist.
Saturday brings a “Bach Discovery Day” at Birmingham Town Hall, when from 11am onwards there will be talks by guest speakers and live music, hoping to bring deeper insight into Bach’s mind, music, and the world for which it was written.
Then the hall will be cleared in time for a mouthwatering concert from the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, entitled “Best-Loved Bach from the OAE”, and for once I can’t quarrel with that.
Laurence Cummings directs a programme topped and tailed by the glorious, trumpet-blazing third and fourth orchestral suites, Matthew Truscott is soloist in the joyous E major Violin Concerto, and is joined by flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and an as yet un-named harpsichordist for the solo trio in Bach’s spectacular ‘Brandenburg Concerto no.5’
This weekend BachFest was to have ended with a return visit to Birmingham Town Hall of the compelling Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, whose well-phrased, pearly tones have affirmed the legitimacy of Bach on a modern piano, in her case her beloved Fazioli instrument (on which she recently played the ‘Goldberg Variations’ at the Town Hall to unforgettable effect).
Unfortunately indisposition has forced Ms Hewitt to cancel, though she hopes to return to Birmingham very soon. Something to look forward to.
* Details of all Symphony Hall and Birmingham Town Hall concerts on www.thsh.co.uk