With historically informed performance practice seemingly flavour of the month, it’s perhaps surprising that a new group has identified a gap in the market, but that is just what violinist Madeleine Easton has done with her shiny new Bach Akademie Australia. We can boast fine Classical and Romantic ensembles in the Australian Haydn Ensemble and ARCO, the splendid Orchestra of the Antipodes seems to play exclusively for Pinchgut’s operatic ventures, and with the ABO spreading its net wide, Bach comes up as a rarity rather than a regular. Good for Easton then, an Australian who has made her career abroad regularly leading Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists. And good for Gardiner who has signed on as BAA’s Patron.
Of course, Bach has left us a great deal of music, but although the Passions attract annual attention, there’s relatively little in the orchestral line to fill a concert programme. No, it’s the liturgical cantatas that remain under-performed – perhaps unfamiliar because there are well over 200 of them – but as anyone will know who has gone on his musical pilgrimage through the ecclesiastical calendar, this was Bach’s real laboratory, the stuff that brought out the inventor in the jobbing church musician. Easton chose a generous three for her first directed programme, with the vivacious Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin thrown in to end the first half.
Bach Akademie Australia. Photograph © Nick Gilbert
A core group of seven instrumentalists (four violins, cello, bass and chamber organ) was supplemented according to need with violas, harpsichord, oboes, recorders and trumpet, with four singers doing duty one to a part in the cantatas, as Bach might probably have had to make do with for a regular Sunday service. The sound when expanded to its fullest was excellent – lean and nimble violins, buzzy lower strings and gurgling woodwinds, especially fine in the lively opening to Cantata 127 (Herr Jesu Christ, wah’r Mensch und Gott).
Elsewhere, the exposed lines of the spirited double concerto could easily have floored lesser players, but thanks to clear intonation and first-class contributions from Easton and oboist Leo Duarte (a regular with groups like the Sixteen, English Baroque Soloists, Academy of Ancient Music etc.) the audience was treated to a distiguished rendition crowned by a ravishing central duet which saw the two soloists gracefully minueting over a bed of plucked strings.
The evening opened with one of Bach’s earliest, greatest and most startling cantatas, the wildly inventive Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV4). If the melancholy Sinfonia with its scrunchy harmonies felt just a trifle tentative, things soon warmed up with the entry of the four voices revelling in the sheer imagination of Bach’s joyous game of pass the musical parcel, unwrapping the various layers of Luther’s relatively straightforward hymn. Easton’s direction was strong on Bach’s contrasting movements, her understanding forged over years spent exploring these works abroad. The strings’ remorseless tread of death in the fine soprano and alto duet (Susannah Lawergren and Jo Burton) was finely realised, but the vocal direction too was appropriately attentive to text, the “Spott”, of “ein Spott aus dem Tod is worden” (and made a mockery of Death) raising a knowing smile.
Lawergren, a Song Company regular, was to the fore again in the central aria of Cantata 127, a real highlight of the concert, essentially a lullaby where the soprano sings of her soul being at rest in the hands of Jesus. An oboe obligato (the wonderful Duarte again) sailed over pizzicato strings and gently ticking recorders, while the double-time plucking that represents the tolling ‘Sterbeglocken’ (funeral bells) was magical. With her fine legato and secure, un-showy delivery, Lawergren made the ideal soloist. Elsewhere she was complemented in arias by textually detailed tenor Richard Butler and Andrew Fysh’s authoritative bass deploying some resonant bottom notes.
The evening’s finale was a crowd-pleasing favourite, Cantata 51 (Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen), Bach’s only cantata for soprano and trumpet. Lawergren was quite special here, ably abetted by the rock-steady Richard Fomison on baroque trumpet, one of the finest performances on this tricky instrument I can recall hearing in Sydney. Contrasting arias saw some dexterous vocal coloratura jousting with the Olympian athletics of the trumpet, while offsetting that were the finely controlled lines of the central aria spun over cello and chamber organ.
Launching a new ensemble is hard, especially one as ambitious as Bach Akademie Australia. Yes, it would have been nice to double the strings and triple the vocal line, and I’m sure the ensemble would have killed for a bit more paid rehearsal time. All of that requires money, but – and potential funders take note – this was a most auspicious start for an outfit that thinks big and aims to feed the soul. It would be great to see them stick around and thrive.