Bach celebrates the Reformation

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southbank


St John’s Bach Orchestra and Choir

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southbank

October 25, 2015

In two years, the Reformation’s central act – Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche  – will be 500 years old, and it’s not stretching possibilities to foresee that Bach’s cantatas will form a significant part of those celebrations.

At this city’s most prominent Lutheran church, Graham Lieschke continues to promote and oversee regular performances of these musical statements of faith.  For today – Reformation Sunday – he presented No. 80 which uses Luther’s most famous hymn as its basis: a familiar tune that Bach transforms immediately into a polyphonic marvel as the opening chorus piles vocal and instrumental lines on each other, the composer testifying to his faith with a skill of construction and emotional enthusiasm that sweeps away all doubt.

At Southgate, these cantatas are inserted into the regular Sunday liturgy, a constant framework into which Bach inserted his own musical sermons.   In these more theologically relaxed times, the interposed cantata brings an extraordinary focus to the day’s liturgical observations, as well as to the readings and gospel which set the service’s tenor.  This morning’s cantata content spoke clearly to the concept of the spiritual war between God and the Devil expressed in military metaphors of bulwarks, fortresses, flags, battlefields, armaments, freedom and victory.

The St. John’s Choir gave a fair account of the opening movement, if inclined to be swamped by the ornate orchestration for oboe and trumpet trios, timpani, a bustling string body, and organ and harpsichord enjoying separate parts.  Singer numbers seem to have shrunk over the past few years and – as with most local bodies – the tenors sounded faint, especially in this initial complex.  But the later chorale verses  came across with  more aggression and verve.

A few bleeps from the period trumpets emerged in the work’s finale, although the lines are taxingly positioned.  Both oboists Kailen Cresp and Andrew Angus enjoyed more success with their solo contributions and the string corps show competence but a surprising lack of bounce, generating the work’s supporting weave but leaving it dynamically inert.

As usual, Lieschke benefited from a quartet of able young soloists.  Soprano Caitlin Vincent owns a clear-speaking instrument, even across its range for her counter-melody in bass Jeremy Kleeman‘s Alles, was von Gott geboren  aria. and her own very exposed Komm in mein Herzenshaus solo.  Kleeman made the most of an extended, ardent recitative but the morning’s most effective solo work came from alto Maximilian Riebl and tenor Jacob Lawrence in the cantata’s penultimate duet Wie selig sind doch die: mutually considerate, well balanced in vocal timbre, accurate in rhythmic definition and pitching.

The St. John’s  series continues on Sunday November 29, the run-up to Christmas being marked with Schwingt freudig euch empor, Cantata No. 36, written to celebrate the start of Advent in 1731 and hymning Bach’s great faith with impregnable certainty and infectious joy.

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