Christmas isn’t Christmas without Messiah and “Easter isn’t Easter without Bach,” as Bach Akademie Australia board member Wendy McLeod said. Founder and Artistic Director Madeleine Easton leads an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists and eight singers in Alleluja, an Easter narrative of music that expresses the anguish of death and the ecstasy of resurrection in the way that only Johann Sebastian Bach can.
Madeleine Easton leads Bach Akademie Australia at Alleluja – An Easter Celebration. Photograph supplied
Before Easter, there is the crucifixion. The opening cantata, Christ lag in Todes Banden (Christ lay in the bonds of death), BWV 4 takes us there. With the voice-doubling brass instruments omitted, the orchestra plays the brief Sinfonia, articulating the recurring, crushing semitone motif, expressing twisting pain, anguish, and the absolute depths of desolation. Easton pauses on the tierce de picardie that closes this movement, moving from minor to major key, before the sopranos begin their cantus firmus of Verse 1. This is a celebratory chorus, which incongruously contains the title words. The sopranos begin with a slow and steadfast line, which moves to busily contracting rhythms. The solo arias are sung by both voices in each section. There is a perfect confluence of sound amongst the singers. The second verse is particularly despairing as sopranos and altos sing an imitative duet echoing the words Den Tod (death) over a sombre walking bass accompaniment. Bach composed this cantata, thought to be his first, when he was just 22. Yet, the complexity of this piece is vast. The ensemble moves easily between the alternating fast and slow movements, polyphony and homophony and the various mirrored combinations of voice, written in chiastic form. The word painting is vivid.
There is a change of configuration for the funeral motet Singet dem Herrn (Sing unto the Lord a new song) BWV225, for double choir and continuo. The eight voices of the two antiphonal choirs in this demanding piece are positioned with the sopranos in the centre and the lower voices fanning out either side, an opportunity to showcase the way that Bach played with the vocal entries. Unlike the 200 or more cantatas, which Bach produced regularly, the six extant motets were composed for special occasions and are more celebratory. Bach was a champion of expressing grief through the most joyous music. Perhaps it was one way of confronting death, acknowledging release and the comfort of what he believed lay beyond. It is a glorious rendition of Singet dem Herrn. The first section is performed with delirious joy through insistent declarations of the word “Singet”. The following sections are well defined, culminating in a majestic four-part fugue.
Bach’s Triple Violin Concerto BWV 1064R is thought to have originally been a concerto for three harpsichords drawn from an arrangement for violin. It is a virtuosic three-way encounter as the violinists bring to life Bach’s score that is sometimes duel and sometimes dialogue. Easton directs from the violin as Matthew Greco and Stephen Freeman shoulder arms alongside her. The violins present a clear, sweet and bright sound in the opening Allegro. The middle movement Adagio is beautifully expressive before the pyrotechnics of the final Allegro, slightly breathless and challenging the sense of ensemble.
The Missa Brevis in Major BWV 234, called so as it sets just the Kyrie and the Gloria as required by the Lutheran church, is considered one of Bach’s mature works. As he already had a body of work from which he could parody ideas, it contains references to many of his previous writings. Two flutes join the ensemble as the solo vocal quartet comprising Susannah Lawergren, Hannah Fraser, Richard Butler and Andrew Fysh, renders a beautifully controlled Christe Eleison. The subtle onset of its phrases swell to the dance rhythms of the Kyrie, accentuated with hemiolas. The Domine Deus is played with graceful descending phrases by Easton. It is set high for bass Andrew O’Connor who performs with impressive range. The Quitollis peccata, from Chloe Lankshear is surely a show-stopper. As the flutes join the voice, it is evident how beautifully blended the three sounds are. The ensemble finally brings the threads together in the mighty fugue of the Cum sanctu spiritu.
St Francis of Assisi Church adds to the ambience, although its dome somewhat diffuses the sound and there are moments when the instruments fail to agree on pitch. Opportunities to rehearse in ensemble and perform have been scarce. Nevertheless, this is splendid music from the Bach Akademie Australia which contains a wealth of talent, expertise and dedication. With its luxury vocal and instrumental casting and sublime performance, it is one of a handful of ensembles that still brings us ‘heritage’ baroque music played with integrity. The return of the BAA is welcomed!