It was an honour, a humbling and an inspiring experience to play at this 'Mecca' of Bach scholarship and tradition, and we were not really sure how the Leipzig audience would react to our way of performing. In the event, we were met by storms of 'bravo' and an extended standing ovation. We are extremely grateful to the festival and the audience for receiving us so warmly, and very much look forward to returning there in the future.
Happily (and this is by no means always the case!), the reviews of the concert very much reflected the atmosphere in the church. In the press we were described as the "discovery of the festival". Below is the full review in the Leipziger Volkzeitung (translated by Jonathan Sells). The original German versions of the two longest reviews are here and here.
Leipziger Volkszeitung, 13th June 2016, Werner Kopfmüller
the baroque collective Solomon’s Knot performs at the Bachfest in the Nikolaikirche
It is actually hardly to be believed: not a single contemporary account about the performance of a church composition of Bach has survived. The only things to be passed down are the not very flattering entries of Johann Adolph Scheibe in his ‘Der critische Musicus’, according to which Bach’s music was unnatural, contrived and confusing in style. Apart from Scheibe’s critique, which Bach refused to accept and countered with a refutation, no further document has been handed down to posterity. Thus, we have no idea what impression the music made on the congregation assembled for the Sunday service.
The reaction of the capacity audience on Saturday evening in the Nikolaikirche told a very clear story: after the final chorus of the Magnificat BWV 243a a storm of enthusiasm broke out which greeted the musicians with standing ovations and cries of ‘bravo’ which did not want to end; only the encore of the final movement could somewhat appease the applause.
The performance of the baroque collective Solomon’s Knot with their director Jonathan Sells marked a further highlight of the Bachfest, which has only just begun. Under the title, “Secrets of Harmony”, the Bern- and London-based ensemble placed the cantata cycle 1723/24 at the centre of its programme. Thus, they performed those pieces which received their Leipzig premiere during Bach’s first year as Thomaskantor: the cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” BWV 21, the Magnificat in Eb BWV 243a, and between the two masterpieces, the concerto-aria-cantata “Machet die Tore weit” by Bach’s predecessor, Johann Schelle.
Only the Magnificat was a new creation for Leipzig. Mary’s song of praise in Latin describes the meeting of the archangel Gabriel and the future mother of God, known as the Visitation of the Virgin Mary. This work, which was originally written in Eb major and is extremely virtuosic for instrumentalists as well as singers, seems to have slightly overstretched the Leipzig Stadtpfeifer, because a few years later, Bach revised the piece, transposing it into the key of D major, which was easier for the trumpeters. Solomon’s Knot, however, chose the original version, and it was audible in every moment that the trumpets did not need to resort to the alternative. In the opening chorus ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’, the listeners already experienced an explosion of splendid baroque colour: the infectious swing, and luminous presence of the trumpet parts launched a momentum which carried through until the end of the work. It was never noisy or violent, but rather built to such unbridled joy in music-making in the final chorus, ‘Gloria Patri’, that only the repeat of the final section after frenetic applause could dissipate the excess energy.
In fact, the performance of all of the instrumentalists was remarkable: the softly pulsing Basso continuo, which despite holding back dynamically never lost its sharply-defined contour; the warmly luminous string sound, in which the grace of God flowed during the aria ‘Suscepit Israel puerum suum’, or the playing of Leo Duarte: there was so much painful beauty in the wailing garlands of his oboe playing that his duet partner soprano Zoë Brookshaw was even able to hold back a little in her expression, and a little later he wove bucolic recorder sounds into the singing of Martha McLorinan, praising the compassion of the Lord for the hungry. Whilst the ensemble playing of the vocal and instrumental parts was sounded out in every phrase as if with a plumb line and balanced in every syllable, the singers also presented themselves as an ensemble that is strong in individual expression in every part, but that can also fuse itself into a homogeneous whole – also in Schelle’s ‘Machet die Tore weit’.
By not being overly expressive in vocal character, they avoided the danger that, after the opening chorus, the solo sections might become too fragmentary. This was to the benefit of the piece, which could otherwise have become an incidental filler. After all, Bach’s ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’ BWV 21 is considered an exemplary work amongst his pre-Leipzig vocal music. Bach was thoroughly aware of the importance of this cantata, using it time and again as a calling card when auditioning for new positions, and performing it on the 3rd Sunday after Trinity in the first year of his tenure as Thomaskantor.
Here, Bach displays everything that his compositional art has to offer – and fundamentally contradicts the claim that he never wrote for the opera. The eighth movement, the duet between a believing soul and the Lord Jesus, is just that: an operatic scene conceived with psychological refinement, in which the resigned calm of Zoë Brookshaw’s soprano mixed with the tender warmth of Jonathan Sells’ bass. Such moments were also a part of this exceptional evening.