Bach’s Voices, Bach’s Violin
Church of St. Mary the Virgin, South Perth
Review by William Yeoman
The chorales, motets and solo violin music of J. S. Bach and the work of musicologist Helga Thoene, the Hilliard Ensemble and violinist Christopher Poppen were the inspiration behind this fascinating and unusual first concert in the Giovanni Consort’s 20th anniversary season.
In many ways, the Lutheran chorales form the backbone of Bach’s masterly harmonic, melodic and polyphonic elaborations across a variety of forms and genres, and it is no surprise that in the mid-90s Thoene would have found references to chorales such as Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (“None could overcome death”) embedded in Bach’s magisterial Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin. Indeed, she goes further in suggesting the work is a “tombeau”, an elegy on the death of his recently departed wife, Maria Barbara.
Around the turn of this century, acclaimed UK vocal ensemble The Hilliard Ensemble teamed up with violinist Christopher Poppen to see if something could be made of Thoene’s theories in practice. The result was the ground-breaking Morimur, released on the ECM label in 2001, on which the first four movements of the Partita were interspersed with Bach’s chorale harmonisations before voices and violin came together for the final Chaconne.
But how does all this work in live performance? The Giovanni Consort’s voices – in this instance, 2 x SATB, are youthful, fresh and pellucid; the resulting sonority, carefully crafted by Kristin Bowtell’s intelligent direction, was silky, transparent and detailed. This was however a very “classical” Bach, and it was left to the estimable Shaun Lee-Chen to provide the requisite emotion. If his Gigue didn’t flow as effortlessly as one might have wished, his Allemande and Sarabande in particular were models of reconciling the fundamentally cantabile nature of the instrument with Bach’s fulsome harmonic and polyphonic writing. Wisely, he omitted repeats.
Only in the Chaconne did violinist and singers lose any hope of reconciling those elements. Bach’s undoubted masterpiece for the solo violin requires at least as much concentration from the listener as it does from the performer, and the vocal elements, beautiful though they were, proved a distraction at best from Lee-Chen’s dramatic, incisive reading. A uniformly pianissimo approach throughout, or at least something like the subtlety of the Hilliard’s own interpretation, would have been preferred.
After the interval came a performance of four of Bach’s six motets, which as Kristin Bowtell writes in his excellent program notes “sit at the pinnacle of the choral singer’s art” and “are not for the faint-hearted.” Again, there was some terrific singing here, especially in Komm, Jesu komm (“Come, Jesus, Come”) and the spectacular Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied (“Sing to the Lord a New Song”) for double choir (interestingly, throughout the concert Bowtell had laid out the ensemble BTAS/SATB). Organist Alessandro Pittorino also made an artfully discrete contribution in Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (“Praise the Lord, all Ye Heathens”).
True, the more complex the music became, especially in matters of texture and tessitura, the more stretched the performers sounded, with a resultant loss of coherence. But these were theatrically nuanced accounts which do a credit to composer and performers alike.