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Bachfest kicks off in Leipzig

Rick Fulker
June 8, 2018

Despite the sedate-sounding theme of this year's festival, "Cycles" is a true sensation for those who love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — particularly the inexhaustible fans of his work.

Statue of Bach in front of St. Thomas' Church
Image: DW/G. Reucher

Thirty-three of Johann Sebastian Bach's best sacred cantatas performed in 10 concerts during the first 48 hours of this year's Bachfest will test the endurance of die-hard Bach fans. Consisting of vocal and instrumental music, these selected cantatas, written by Bach for specific Sundays and holidays, comprise a cycle that would fill a complete liturgical year.

Gotthold Schwarz
Gotthold Schwarz, the current cantor of St. Thomas Church, will begin and end the festivalImage: Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes

The unique selling point: the performances are in the hands of arguably the world's five most highly regarded Bach conductors. The list begins with Gotthold Schwarz, the current cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and successor to Bach in that function. He will be leading the St. Thomas Church Boys Choir, which has a legacy that dates back to 1212.

The playbill also features Hans-Christoph Rademann of Stuttgart's Gächinger Kantorei mixed choir, Masaaki Suzuki leading the Bach Collegium Japan, Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir and finally Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the long-serving conductor of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists — and the current president of the Bach Archive in Leipzig.

St. Thomas Boy Choir
Over eight centuries old yet still quite young: the first day will feature the St. Thomas Boys ChoirImage: Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Gert Mothes

Coming up with the best

The idea for the Bach bash originated with Gardiner, who in intensive discussions with his colleagues achieved a consensus of sorts on just which of Bach's nearly 200 cantatas are the best. Certainly no easy task, with a composer who in his massive output had hardly any weak points.

The downbeat to the festival in the city where Bach lived and worked for 27 years is Friday afternoon, in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church, in whose altar space the composer is buried. Featuring the St. Thomas Boys Choir and members of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra, the program begins with Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ and continues with sacred music by Bach, Johann Hermann Schein and Felix Mendelssohn. Ten days and 160 events later, the festival draws to a close with Gotthold Schwarz leading the St. Thomas Boys Choir and the Academy of Early Music Berlin in Bach's massive B Minor Mass.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Gardiner heads the Bach Archive in LeipzigImage: Sheila Rock@Decca

The festival's venues include authentic locations where Bach worked until his death in 1750. Rounding out the program is a cycle of Bach's passions and performances of keyboard music featuring the Well-Tempered Clavier and the collection named the Clavier-Übung, which includes the famous Goldberg Variations. These collections also exemplify Bach's predilection for writing works of music and compiling them into cycles.

The Bachfest in Leipzig draws roughly 70,000 visitors a year, a sizeable proportion of them coming from outside the city and abroad. Also included are popular outdoor events, including live transmissions of concerts to Leipzig's Market Square.