The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

37th Canary Islands International Music Festival
Jameos del Agua Auditorium
Thursday 22nd July 2021

This was the third event we have seen over the past couple of weeks as part of the 37th Canary Islands International Music Festival. You may have already seen our reviews of Trio Arriaga playing in San Bartolome and of The Bavarian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra which delivered a range of beautiful music.(if not, those reports are still available in our music archives) Tonight´s event was held in Jameos Del Agua, the wonderful theatre in the caves, and offered us a slection from Bach, played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, I´m a little bit ahead of myself here, (and will very soon meet myself coming back) and am writing this paragraph before the event. I won´t be writing the review until Saturday morning, following the concert on the Friday evening. So, come follow your art down sidetracks and detours, underground and underwater, and then read the review. Somehow I think it will be very positive.

The Frieburg Baroque Orchestra (FBO) is one of the outstanding ensembles of today in in delivering historicist interpretation of music, something they have been doing now for over thirty years. The orchestra was founded in 1987 by former students of the Freiburg Higher School of Music, almost all of whom were violin students of Rainer Kussmaul.

Rainer has performed in major international concert halls (Wigmore Hall, Lincoln Centre, Concertgebouw and Philharmonie) and on his tours has visited five continents. With its own season tickets in Freiburg, Stuttgart and Berlin, FBO regularly participates in the Salzburg, Tanglewood and Innsbruck festivals.

Their repertoire focuses on baroque and classicism, although they also perform works of Romanticism, a musical diversity documented in recordings for which they have won several awards.
In addition, the FBO works together with a wide list of instrumentalists and vocal soloists of recognized status. FBO, nevertheless, usually play without direction except in specific opera projects or larger orchestral ones, such as the one that brings them to this 37th Festival of International Music touring the canary islands. Tonight, they were conducted by René Jacobs, with whom the orchestra regularly collaborates on Mozart operas and baroque and classical oratorios.

Since 2017, its artistic directors and soloists have been Gottfried von der Goltz (violin) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (pianoforte).

Tonight´s programme was drawn from the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the most magnificent baroque-era composer. Bach has been revered through the ages for his work’s musical complexities and stylistic innovations.

With an already prestigious musical lineage Bach took on various organist positions during the early 18th century, creating famous compositions like Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Some of his best-known compositions are the Mass in B Minor, the Brandenburg Concertos (which we were treated to tonight) and The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach died in Leipzig, Germany, on July 28, 1750, and today more than 250 years on, he is considered one of the greatest Western composers of all time.

Born in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany, in March 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach came from a family of musicians, stretching back several generations. His father, Johann Ambrosius, worked as the town musician in Eisenach, and it is believed that he taught young Johann to play the violin. At the age of seven, Johann Sebastian went to school where he received religious instruction and studied Latin and other subjects. His Lutheran faith would influence his later musical works. By the time he turned 10, Bach found himself an orphan after the death of both of his parents. His older brother Johann Christoph, a church organist in Ohrdruf, took him in. Johann Christoph provided some further musical instruction for his younger brother and enrolled him in a local school. Bach stayed with his brother’s family until he was 15.

By then Bach had discovered his beautiful soprano singing voice, which helped him land a place at a school in Lüneburg. Sometime after his arrival, his voice broke and changed so greatly that Bach switched to playing the violin and the harpsichord. He was greatly influenced by a local organist named George Böhm. In 1703, he landed his first job as a musician at the court of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. There he was a jack-of-all-trades, serving as a violinist and at times, filling in for the official organist.

His reputation as a great performer grew rapìdly, and it was his great technical skill that landed him the position of organist at the New Church in Arnstadt.

After being destroyed in the major city fire of 1581, St Boniface Church was reconstructed as the New Church between 1676 and 1683. The master organ builder Johann Friedrich Wender built the organ for the New Church, which was inspected and approved by Johann Sebastian Bach at the age of 18 in 1703.
Bach also worked as an organist at the church from 1703 to 1707. On the occasion of the musician’s 250th birthday, the church was renamed the ‘Johann Sebastian Bach Church’ in 1935.

The organ gallery on the west side of the church contains the Baroque Wender organ once played by Bach above a Romantic Steinmeyer organ dating back to 1913, which is located in its own gallery.
He was responsible for providing music for religious services and special events as well as giving music instruction. History writes Bach as an independent and sometimes arrogant young man, who seemed not to get along well with his students. In fact and was reprimanded by church officials for not rehearsing them frequently enough.

Bach only aggravated that situation when he disappeared for several months in 1705. Although he only officially received a few weeks’ leave from the church, he nevertheless travelled to Lübeck to hear famed organist Dietrich Buxtehude and further extended his stay without informing anyone back in Arnstadt.
In 1707, Bach was glad to leave Arnstadt for an organist position at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen. This move, though, was another that did not turn out as well as he had planned. Bach’s musical style clashed with the that of the church pastor. Bach created complex arrangements and had a fondness for weaving together different melodic lines. His pastor believed that church music needed to be simple. One of Bach’s most famous works from this time is the cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit,” also known as “Actus Tragicus.”

After a year in Mühlhausen, Bach won the post of organist at the court of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. He wrote many church cantatas and some of his best compositions for the organ while working for the duke. During his time at Weimar, Bach wrote Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, one of his most popular pieces for the organ. He also composed the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat, or Heart And Mouth And Deed. One section of this cantata, called, in English, Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring is especially famous.

In 1717, Bach accepted a position with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. But Duke Wilhelm Ernst had no interest in letting Bach go and even imprisoned him for several weeks when he tried to leave. In early December, Bach was released and allowed to go to Cöthen to see Prince Leopold, who had a passion for music. He played the violin and often bought musical scores while traveling abroad.

Whilst there, Bach devoted much of his time to instrumental music, composing concertos for orchestras, dance suites and sonatas for multiple instruments. He also wrote pieces for solo instruments, including some of his finest violin works. His secular compositions still reflected his deep commitment to his faith with Bach often writing the initials I.N.J. for the Latin In Nomine Jesu, or ´in the name of Jesus,´ on his sheet music.
In tribute to the Duke of Brandenburg, Bach created a series of orchestra concertos, which became known as the “Brandenburg Concertos,” in 1721. These concertos are considered to be some of Bach’s greatest works. That same year, Prince Leopold got married, and his new bride discouraged the prince’s interest in music. Bach completed the first book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” around this time. With students in mind, he put together this collection of keyboard pieces to help them learn certain techniques and methods. Bach had to turn his attentions to finding work when the prince dissolved his orchestra in 1723.

After auditioning for a new position in Leipzig, Bach signed a contract to become the new organist and teacher at St. Thomas Church. He was required to teach at the Thomas School as a part of his position as well. With new music needed for services each week, Bach threw himself into writing cantatas. The “Christmas Oratorio,” for example, is a series of six cantatas that reflect on the holiday.

Bach also created musical interpretations of the Bible using choruses, arias and recitatives. These works are referred to as his “Passions,” the most famous of which is “Passion According to St. Matthew.” This musical composition, written in 1727 or 1729, tells the story of chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew. The piece was performed as part of a Good Friday service.

One of his later religious masterworks is Mass In B Minor. He had developed sections of it, known as Kyrie and Gloria, in 1733, which were presented to the Elector of Saxony. However, Bach did not finish the composition, a musical version of a traditional Latin mass, until 1749. The complete work was not performed during his lifetime.

By 1740, Bach was struggling with his eyesight, but he continued to work despite his vision problems. He was even well enough to travel and perform, visiting Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia in 1747. He played for the king, making up a new composition on the spot. Back in Leipzig, Bach refined the piece and gave Frederick a set of fugues called “Musical Offering.”

In 1749, Bach started a new composition called The Art Of Fugue, but he did not complete it. He tried to fix his failing sight by having surgery the following year, but the operation ended up leaving him completely blind. Later that year, Bach suffered a stroke and he died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750.

During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than a composer. Few of his works were even published during his lifetime. Still Bach’s musical compositions were admired by those who followed in his footsteps, including Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. His reputation received a substantial boost in 1829 when German composer Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew.
Musically, Bach was a master at invoking and maintaining different emotions. He was an expert storyteller as well, often using melody to suggest actions or events. In his works, Bach drew from different music styles from across Europe, including French and Italian. He used counterpoint, the playing of multiple melodies simultaneously, and fugue, the repetition of a melody with slight variations, to create richly detailed compositions. He is considered to be the best composer of the Baroque era, and one of the most important figures in classical music in general.

Little personal correspondence has survived to provide a full picture of Bach as a person. However, historical records do shed some light on his character and strongly indicate that Bach was devoted to his family. In 1706, he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. The couple had seven children together, some of whom died as infants. Maria died in 1720 while Bach was traveling with Prince Leopold. The following year, Bach married a singer named Anna Magdalena Wülcken. They had thirteen children, more than half of them died in their infancy.

Bach clearly shared his love of music with his children. From his first marriage, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach became composers and musicians. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Christian Bach, sons from his second marriage, also enjoyed musical success.

Tonight´s programme, of course, was entirely of the one and only Johan Sebastain Bach,

Overture No.2 In B Minor was the first piece played but it is unknown when exactly Johann Sebastian Bach wrote this Suite. It is a vibrant and fast-paced work, leaning towards the entertainment side of pure music. This is one of four such works that the composer wrote in his lifetime. ´

The ensemble here tonight seemed to make more substitutions than were made in the whole of the recent European football championships , whatever was the passage of play, the team from The Frieburg Baroque Orchestra always had the perfect line up. There were fourteen or perhaps fifteen star players in the squad but for this opening salvo only seven instrumentalists took to the stage, and delivered a very lively opening brilliantly led by the female flautist.

Bach’s original score for his Brandenburg Concerto Number 4 called for solo violin and two ‘fiauti d’echo’ in the concertino, with first and second violins, viola, cello, violo ne and cembalo as the ripieno. The word fiauto (‘flute’) was used at the time both for recorders and side -held flutes, but Bach specified ‘traverso’ whenever he wanted the latter. In the second movement, the violin provides a bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied. Bach adapted the 4th Brandenburg concerto as the last of his set of 6 harpsichord concertos, the concerto for harpsichord, two recorders and strings in F major, BWV 1057.

It seemed the entire playing squad of the FBO took to the field for the delivery of this second piece and the instrumentalists, to continue the football parlance, passed the ball effortlessly from violin to cello to clavichord in a piece of play that delighted the fans with surging runs and clever trickery in a beautiful and hypnotic manner.

I am not particularly knowledgeable about Bach´s Cembalo works but fortunately an on-line AllMusic Review by Blair Sanderson offered me the following information.

´In most collections of Bach’s harpsichord works, the Italian Concerto and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue are regularly found, but Richard Egarr is almost apologetic for including such favorites on this disc. He is quick to point out in his liner notes how hearing them in context — alongside Bach’s lesser known transcriptions — may bring a reassessment of these overly familiar but brilliant pieces. Whether or not Egarr rescues them from their deserved popularity is beside the point, for his varied program is fascinating and enjoyable without any need to justify the selections. Scholars may derive insights from Egarr’s study of Bach’s development, in which transcribing the works of older composers played an essential part. To this end, Egarr provides much of the interest by including Bach’s transcriptions of two of Vivaldi’s concertos and Reincken’s Sonata from “Hortus Musicus.” But the lay listener can enjoy these virtuosic re-creations without knowing details of their evolution, and Egarr’s energetic playing is quite engaging, almost in spite of his didactic tendencies. If anything here is too pointedly pedantic, it is Egarr’s completion of Bach’s unfinished Fugue in C minor, which is perhaps too earnest an ending for an otherwise lively album. Harmonia Mundi’s recording is excellent, and the harpsichord’s sound is robust and appealing´.

That was certainly true of tonight´s solo performance on the instrument and just as I was struck by how apposite those words ´robust and appealing´ were proving to be, I was hit by a memory of the teenage me buying my first ever piece of classical recorded classical music. Switched On Bach was being marketed as new-pop or something else equally ridiculous but even so I didn´t tell my mates I had bought it. They were all too busy listening to Leapy Lee, whittering on about his Little Arrows, or The Dave Clark Five chasing a Red Balloon, or The Casuals wondering what they were supposed to do with a girl like Jessamine, down at Stand Youth Club in Whitefield, near Bury. At the top of the charts on that day more than fifty years ago was Mary Hopkin already looking back and saying Those Were The Days.

Switched-On Bach was the album debut by the American composer Wendy Carlos, released under the name Walter Carlos, in October 1968 by Columbia Records. Produced by Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the album is a collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed by Carlos and Benjamin Folkman on a Moog synthesizer. It was, and remains, a joyous sound that opened my ears to a composer and a music I return to time and again. And tonight all that uplifting experience was recaptured.

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his fifth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1050.2 (formerly 1050), for harpsichord, flute and violin as soloists, and an orchestral accompaniment consisting of strings and continuo. An early version of the concerto, BWV 1050.1 (formerly 1050a), originated in the late 1710s. On 24 March 1721 Bach dedicated the final form of the concerto to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg.
The acoustics in these caves at Jameos Del Agua are fantastic and the full orchestra for this piece took full advantage of them. Every note was crystal clear under the absolutely unobtrusive conducting from the keyboards.

Lest you wonder that this review, and of one or two other recent concerts, should end with tales of standing ovations and repeated encores it is worth noting that these were all well-deserved by world class and well-travelled classical musicians performing under the banner of The 37th Canary Islands International Music Festival.

Tonight´s concert, in this wonderful underground arena had, as we say in the world of football, brought the crowd to its feet. I didn´t care at that moment whether football will ever be coming home.

Music had lifted me, and all of us it seemed.

Simply wonderful.