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Bach in Time and Place

St Giles', Cripplegate
12/11/1998 -  
Johan Sebastian Bach Cantata BWV 16: Herr Gott, dich loben wir, Cantata BWV 139: Wohl dem, der dich auf seinen Gott, Cantata BWV 98: Was Gott tut, das ist Wohlgetan, Cantata BWV 133: Ich freue mich in dir
Katharine Fuge (soprano), Derek Lee Ragin (alto), Julian Podger (tenor), Gotthold Schwartz (bass) Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)

Tonight's performance of four Bach cantatas (repeated tomorrow, with a second concert in Southwark Cathedral on 21 December) was a fund-raiser for Bach 2000. This is a project to perform all Bach's church cantatas on the correct Sundays in churches throughout northern Europe, starting at Christmas 1999 in Weimar and ending at Christamas 2000 in Leipzig. Gardiner announced at the end of the concert that the doors were locked and the audience would have to leave chunky cheques on their seats to get out...

This concert was a preliminary sketch for what is to come. The orchestra was good, sometimes exciting, and the choir was completely at home with the chorales. Julian Podger was a passionate, dramatic tenor who suffered from the slightly erratic acoustics of St Giles'. His first aria, "Gott is mein Freund", was almost inaudible even though he looked as if he was giving his all. He was, perhaps, partly upstaged by the unusual and powerful corno di caccia part. He presumably moved a few inches for his later parts, as his singing became much more audible and matched his expression and gestures. Gotthold Schwartz was a clear, fluid bass, and Katharine Fuge, stepping in for Deborah York, also sang clearly and attractively. There was less to Derek Lee Ragin than there might have been. His singing is sweet, but not every note gets over, and he seemed insecure in his aria, "Getrost! es fasst ein heilger Leib" in Cantata 133.

Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly worthwhile performance which suggested the enormous potential of the project. Gardiner's approach seems right for church performance. He doesn't aim for the extreme intensity and high drama of Ton Koopman's historically informed performances, but he also avoids the Anglican vagueness of some English approaches to Bach. Gardiner manages to bring out the dramatic structure, often an agitated or extreme frame of mind that resolves into a calmer one, framed by familiar chorales, while maintaining a sense of reflectiveness and inner dialogue.

The sample tonight also suggests that there is a great deal of interesting material, especially when experienced within the context of the church year and the architecture and institutions of north European reformed Christianity. It is sometimes claimed that Bach's cantatas are small operas, and this is certainly defensible for the comic secular cantatas. But the church cantatas deal with individual feelings about life, above all, the fear of death and the comfort in trusting in God. They never touch on relationships between people, and especially not on love or sex, which is what almost all opera, and almost all drama, is about in some form or other. Rather, the cantatas express a communal response to the pain of life (cantata 139 reflects on the misery of personal attacks, which can be endured by trust in God), as well as joy in the hope of Christian redemption and a corresponding euphoria based on everyone getting together to have a good time (the first part of cantata 16 celebrates the new year). This is all part of the role of religion in building supportive communities which provide secular benefits as well. Gardiner's project takes the cantatas back to real, specific, communities where this experience can be to some extent recovered.

Interesting, two of tonight's cantatas, 139 and 98, from Sundays at the end of the church year, deal explicitly with the relationship between spiritual and temporal power. The "wolves" in cantata 139 seem from the context, the question of whether to pay taxes to Caesar and implicitly whether to accept civil government when it conflicts with your religious convictions, to be (bad) government or human violence. Christians seem to regard the period before Advent as a time for dealing with the world: looking for a response to Italian Fascism, the Catholic chuch made the last Sunday of the church year into the feast of Christ the King. And the demonstrations in Leipzig and other cities that lead to the end of the German Democratic Republic took place on the final Sundays of the church year. The Berlin wall came down, and the Communists gave up in Czechoslovakia, on the last Sunday of the year. Gardiner's tour will certainly resonate with the events of the past ten years, on both the human and the political level.

H.E. Elsom



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