Bach’s Ascension Oratorio, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11, charts a course from despair to blazing hope for the future, and this is the larger trajectory that one of Australia’s newest period instrument ensembles, Bach Akademie Australia, took in its official season launch for 2019, which opened with the cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, and culminated in the blazing finale of the Ascension.

Bach Akademie Australia, Madeleine EastonBach Akademie Australia Artistic Director Madeleine Easton

Bach Akademie Australia’s founder, violinist Madeleine Easton, led the ensemble in BWV 12’s opening Sinfonie, with the richly coloured sound of Emma Black’s oboe tracing expressive lines of heaving gut strings, before the newly formed Bach Akademie Australia choir delivered an agonising “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”, their sound ringing in the spacious acoustic of Paddington’s St Francis of Assisi church. In keeping with what we know of performances in Bach’s day, the soloists stepped out from within the choir to deliver their recitatives and arias, beginning with the transparent tone of countertenor Tobias Cole – admirably pulling double shifts on the alto parts in this concert to cover for Carmel de Jager, who withdrew due to illness – contrasted by Black’s darker oboe lines. David Greco delivered the Cantata’s bass aria with the expressive text-handling we’ve come to expect from him, while Richard Butler’s clean ornamentation echoed the trumpet’s penetrating timbre in the tenor aria. While some intonation issues detracted from the joyful relief offered by the finale chorale, the catharsis was nonetheless palpable.

The building crescendo of this concert escalated with the Cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, the orchestra’s fuller texture – now coloured with three oboes – bolstering the choir in a radiant opening chorus to eternity. Butler’s recitative and aria, the subject turning to the prospect of eternal pain and damnation, was delivered with precision and clarity, the tenor’s melismas on the word “bange” (frightened) deeply affecting. Greco was commanding in his recitative, his cry of “Verdammter!” (You damned one!) terrifying before he struck a more conciliatory tone in the aria Gott is gerecht in seinen Werken (God is just in His works), the oboes now jolly in their accompaniment. Cole’s sound was lean in his sympathetic appeal, O Mensch, errette deine Seele (O man, save your soul) before the mood set by the genial chorus shifted to the urgent trumpet fanfare of Greco’s aria Wacht auf, wacht auf, verlornen Schafe (Wake up, wake up, lost sheep), his tone clean and brassy. Cole and Butler offered a compassionate warning in their duet pleading for humanity to change its ways, the continuo of cello, double bass and organ giving muscular accompaniment to the stylised – yet visceral – “howling and teeth-gnashing” before the splendour of the final chorale, once again on the theme of eternity.

The trumpet-gilded opening chorus of the Ascension Oratorio, praising “God in his Realms” belies the coming pain felt by the disciples at the departure (narrated by the tenor with text from Luke) of Christ’s departure. Here Greco delivered a tortured, intense recitative ending in an almost pitiful plea “Ach, weiche doch noch nicht!” (Ah, do not withdraw from us yet!). Cole continued the plea in the alto aria Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben (Ah, just stay, my dearest Life), over the implacable march of lower strings. The Oratorio, which builds to hopeful expectance of Christ’s second coming, saw the choir’s final soloist step forward, soprano Amy Moore adding her gleaming sound to the warbling baroque flutes and oboes before the festive trumpets and drums of the resplendent final chorus brought a fine evening of music to a close.

While some balance problems, particularly in the opening Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen meant the text of the soloists was sometimes obscured by the orchestra in the arias (though not in the recitatives, which rang out clearly), these were richly detailed, beautifully crafted performances. But this concert offered more than simply wonderful music. Few contemporary listeners will come close to the familiarity Bach’s own audiences would have had with the Lutheran chorales he draws on in these works – or even, perhaps, with the liturgy itself – but with thoughtful, well-researched performances and an elegantly constructed program, Easton and Bach Akademie Australia offered an opportunity to really dig down deep into Bach’s words and music – a profound and rewarding experience.

Bach Akademie Australia performs Ascension at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, on March 30