Wednesday 3 April 2013

A day with Bach - Bach Marathon with John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner
Like much of Britain, we took advantage of the Easter weekend to get away and we spent a large chunk of Easter Monday travelling back from the East Midlands. This meant that we listened to substantial amounts of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Marathon on BBC Radio 3 on the car radio. It proved an uplifting and illuminating way to travel, experiencing Bach's music continuously and one again marvelling at his genius. John Eliot Gardiner proved a stimulating companion, both in his music making and in his introducing of the music. The main performers were his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with guest appearances from Alban Gerhardt, Viktoria Mullova and John Butt. The BBC dipped in and out of the events in the hall, so that it was actually rather difficult to ascertain quite what the Royal Albert Hall programme was.

Musically, we started with John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists performing Bach's Singet dem Herren, in a glorious performance. One of those which, you suspect, came over better on the radio than in the hall. Alban Gerhardt played Bach's Cello Suite no. 6, quite a daring move in such a large space, but one which paid of in his fine performance. Joanna MacGregor gave a limpid account of the Goldberg Variations which proved that in the right hands the piano is just about the perfect instrument for Bach's keyboard works. MacGregor's performance was notable both for its clarity and intensity.

The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists returned for Bach's early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden, but before the performance we heard the audience being rehearsed as they would be joining in the final chorale. The sound was remarkably convincing, but it was heartening to heard John Eliot Gardiner enjoining them to sing on his beat! John Eliot Gardiner also discussed the cantata. He expounded its construction, with audio samples from the choir and orchestra, in a way which was lucidly illuminating and entertaining. He also explained why he thinks the vocal writing in the cantata shows that it was intended as a purely choral work with no soloists. They performed it thus and had me convinced.

Then Viktoria Mullova played Bach's Partita No. 2, complete with the amazing Chaconne which is probably a memorial to his first wife, Maria Barbara. I have to confess that whilst Mullova's playing was dazzling, I did not quite warm to her performance, finding her solutions to the technical demands such as the spread chords rather unconvincing.

John Butt played a selection of Bach's organ music using the full forces of the restored Royal Albert Hall organ. This had been preceded on the radio by Stephen Farr's documentary about the sound of Bach's organs and how the organs of his native Thuringia and Saxony differed significantly from the North German and Low Countries organs. But conditions in post-war Europe meant that access to North Germany and the Low Countries was easier (Thuringia and Saxony were in East Germany), so we are only just becoming familiar with the sound of Bach played on the type of organ he would have appreciated. The examples played seemed to indicated a rather fuller, richer sound and certainly these were the timbres that John Butt explored on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

In between all this, there was stage discussions with speakers including performers as well as American writer Paul Elie, neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, and psychologist Tamar Pincus. These were by turns illuminating, frustrating and downright annoying, partly because threads seemed to be raised by the non-musicians which apparently led nowhere. But Radio 3 rather dipped in and out so we did not get the feel of an ongoing conversation threading its way between the music, which presumably was what the live audience got. Instead, and equally illuminating,  John Eliot Gardiner introduced six of his Bach heroes, as varied as Casals, Britten, Nadia Boulanger and George Malcolm. Malcolm was playing an amazing, technicolour harpsichord of a type hardly used in Bach today. And Britten's early recording from the St John Passion with the English Chamber Orchestra and Wandsworth Boys School Choir was fascinating and uplifting.

The event in the Royal Albert Hall and on the Radio concluded with a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor. Instead, now returned home, we watched John Eliot Gardiner's TV documentary on Bach which had been broadcast a few days earlier. This mixed performance sequences from John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists with John Eliot Gardiner talking to various experts and shots of John Eliot Gardiner talking from locations associated with Bach's life. It could have been a gentle jog through familiar territory, but John Eliot Gardiner was highly illuminating and made a very enjoyable presenter. He also brought out quite how much we don't know about Bach, and emphasised that the passionate and rather lively man that comes over from the early records is so different from the grim saint of myth. There were stories of him getting involved in a duel and smuggling girls into the organ loft. John Eliot Gardiner linked all this to the passion in Bach's music.

Not every single detail of the Bach marathon worked, and John Eliot Gardiner seemed to delight in getting in digs at hair-shirt purists. But he is an involving communicator and what the marathon showed was how wonderful and uplifting Bach's music can be, that you can listen to it for 10 hours and still only skim the surface. By any stretch of the imagination this was an amazing achievement, and it is a shame that money prevent the event starting in the morning with the Saint John Passion. But it was all still amazing and a stunning way for John Eliot Gardiner to celebrate his 70th birthday.

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