Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Bach by Candlelight

Cantatas, Solo violin sonata, Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582, Brandenburg Concerto No 6

Jenny Wollerman, Catrin Johnsson (sopranos), New Zealand String Quartet, Prazak Quartet, Martin and Victoria Jaenecke (violas), Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

Nelson Cathedral, Friday 30 January

The evening concert was held in the Cathedral: an all-Bach programme. The main draw was the appearance of two singers to perform cantatas. Four cantatas, each consisting in just one section and calling for one or two solo voices. The scoring was reduced in each case to a violin or viola plus continuo (Rolf Gjelsten’s cello and Douglas Mews on the harpsichord; in the case of the Cantata No 78, ‘Wir eilen’, Hiroshi Ikematsu added his plucked double bass to the continuo).

Three chamber pieces and an organ work were included n the programme. It began with the Sonata for Bass Viol in D, BWV1028, with the Prazak Quartet’s violist Josef Kluson who weighed in with a rather unbaroque density that was sometimes uncomfortable with Mews’s harpsichord.

Mews, on the cathedral organ, played the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582, a very fine performance indeed, careful of registrations and of the building’s acoustic. Though we were there primarily for the cantatas, this was a highlight. Brandenburg Concerto No 6 was also well done; it includes no violins and this performance used violists from the two string quartets plus the Nelson violists Martin and Victoria Jaenecke, cellist Rolf Gjelsten and Hiroshi Ikematsu (lending a most welcome weight and richness, even brilliance) and Mews on the harpsichord. I enjoyed this performance hugely.

The four cantatas might have been the centre-piece in terms of concert planning, and the singers, with well contrasted soprano and mezzo voices, each brought excellent qualities to these works. Johnsson’s voice has colour and interesting grain which she used astutely in Cantata 11 and in duet with Wollerman in Cantata 78.

Wollerman is singing better than ever, singing on her own in Cantatas 36 and 58; her voice is very attractive, with just enough character to lend proper discretion to these religious works. It is technically very secure, keenly focused and even in articulation throughout her range. No 58, ‘Wir eilen’, is a lively, secular-sounding cantata, in which the cello bow dances on the strings and Ikematsu’s double bass plucks its way joyously throughout.

The surprise of the evening was a musicological curiosity. Helene Pohl had been exploring a recent study by a musicologist specializing in numerology, whose calculations and consideration of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas has led to speculation that they were composed, in a sense, as elaborate accompaniments to certain chorale melodies. I let that pass; however, Pohl played, with remarkable accomplishment, the Solo violin sonata in A minor (BWV1003). A different chorale was pressed into service for each sonata movement and they did indeed fit together harmonically, creating the sort of spiritual feeling heard in Gorecki’s Third Symphony.

I heard one or two remarks about the violin’s dominance over the voices; that to me was the point, and not inappropriate, for the violin sonata was the essential element. It was an interesting game, the result of numerological studies to which Bach has long been subjected and in which he himself was believed to be interested.

The whole project was admittedly very speculative and I suspect might fall into the same class of ‘scholarship’ as the deniers of Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.

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