Neither a pandemic nor the absence of Festival Director Sergio de Pieri from this 26th feast of fine music could cancel Ballarat’s popular annual early music festival – this year a trimmed down special three day, five-concert event that successfully continued to bring prominent musicians into the historical venues and organs of the central Victorian region.
Said to be the oldest cathedral in Australia, St Patrick’s Cathedral, with its early Gothic design, cavernous high ceilings and side chapels, can offer a sombre, spiritually reflective and acoustically challenging environment. The theme of this opening recital represented a pilgrimage across Europe, with the Cantata being the prayerful reflections of texts set to music.
Opening the program, organist David McFarlane, from the choir gallery, performed Movement 5 from J.S. Bach’s Organ Sinfonia from the church cantata BWV 35, Geist und Seele wird verwirret (Spirit and Soul become confused). An interesting translation indeed, although Bach used the organ as a virtuosic solo instrument and McFarlane admirably gave much colour and thoughtfully distinct instrumentations to the piece; the vast size of the cathedral, however, meant that the bass notes had a natural delay as they travelled to some distant sections of the audience. We are fascinated with the unique timbre and personality of every church organ, but here, in very “Baroque tradition”, the lower pitched pipe organ required the five piece stringed ensemble from Melbourne Baroque Orchestra to be drastically re-tuned and more securely re-located when McFarlane moved down to the front altar concert setting to play the smaller chamber organ for the central menu.
Bach’s Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196, also known as The Wedding Cantata, was very beautifully performed under the direction of Dr Gary Ekkel. These lighter texts from Psalm 115, full of blessings and confident joyful expression, allowed the singers to enjoy the acoustic of the nave, demonstrating confident and clear articulation, fluent and musically expressive phrasing. Five contrasting short sections performed with a smaller ensemble came as a fresh and lightly textured presentation, with a most pleasant instrumental Sinfonia. A strong and powerfully expressive delivery of the aria by soprano Quin Thomson, whose grand upper range filled the heavens, was accompanied by sensitive baroque violin obligato lines from ensemble leader Lizzie Walsh. Christopher Roache joined Oliver Mann for the comforting tenor and bass Aria, Der Herr segne euch je mehr und mehr, and a final jubilant chorus with an active and lively brilliant contrapuntal Amen showed the technical skills and maturity of this vocal quartet. Most admirably, Amelia Jones stepped in to the Festival program at just 48 hours notice, replacing the previously announced mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell, so Bach’s Cantata For Trinity Sunday, O Heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, BWV 165, gave Christopher Roache the opportunity to sing the alto aria Jesu, der aus grosser liebe. His countertenor voice here was full of beauty, youthfulness and purity of tone in its shaping of the text. This was a special moment when the audience was spellbound, immersed in wonder, enjoyment and a sense of timelessness.
Two Cantatas by Buxtehude added further gorgeous settings of more serious and solemn texts. Klag-Lied from Fried- und freudenreiche Hinfahrt, BuxWV 76, gave Thomson a central role for this very beautiful and sedate work, where breadth of tone, rich volume, maturity, clarity and eloquence impressed. Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, BuxWV 62, also revealed the beauty and almost romantically coloured imagination of Buxtehude, and a very pleasing balance and blend of strings with organ accompaniment gave beautiful support to the special atmosphere provided by each vocalist.
Our spiritual journey was to end with the final cantata, Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4, where the vocalists were now fully at home in this acoustically challenging space. They showed terrific ensemble work in Bach’s tricky Alleluia refrain, also adding nice punctuation and accents to a rhythmic a cappella stanza (Verse 4) and made the most of vivid tempo changes. Oliver Mann’s solo for bass was a most effective performance as his lowest notes paired with the organ’s deepest pedal points, and Bach’s challenging pitch range took his Alleluia refrain to an alarming but fully confident high register. In verse 6 Amelia Jones took the main role with her celebratory text, truly expressing the feast of joy, celebration of the Lord’s grace, and enlightening our hearts with her shining musicality. As we would expect at the opening night for a Festival, the full ensemble presented a buoyant, grand and very harmonious final Alleluia.
Slightly curious was the casual attire for some instrumentalists, whose musical performance was so admirable, but relatively informal dress was a little incongruous in this formal Cathedral setting for an opening Festival recital. The inclusion of the sung Latin texts to the program would also have assisted the audience in following the printed English verses.
Well supported in the community, with such wonderful repertoire, fine musical team and direction, this Festival continues to make a unique musical and historical footprint.
Photo credit: David Berry.
Julie McErlain reviewed “From Lubeck to Leipzig: The Baroque Cantata – from Buxtehude to Bach”, presented as part of Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields at St Patrick’s Cathedral on January 7, 2022.