Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Townsville Civic Theatre
August 1, 2018

Day six of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music saw the return of a Townsville favourite, the Bach by Candlelight concerts. The AFCM’s new Artistic Director Kathryn Stott has continued the tradition, programming two concerts that – in true festival style – came at the master’s works from a different angle, rather than simply trotting out the old warhorses.

The first concert saw the world premiere of UK novelist and music journalist Jessica Duchen’s Being Mrs Bach, featuring the writer herself in the title role – and in costume. The well-worn history of the Bach family was here told through the eyes of Johann Sebastian’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, in a performance that gently but firmly pushed her to the centre of a story from which she has so often been sidelined.

Duchen cleverly charted Anna Magdalena’s journey from a talented singer at Köthen to her marriage to Johann Sebastian following the death of his first wife, and the family’s move to Leipzig – where female musicians were not permitted to sing in public. In a sombre black dress, Duchen framed the story from the end of Anna Magdalena’s life, living in poverty after her husband’s death, relating her life with a simple warmth that very economically interwove historical information, wry wit and deeply felt emotion (with a few winks to Bach scholarship along the way). The soft murmuring sound the crowd made after baritone Roderick Williams delivered Duchen’s short but powerful introduction showed she had pitched it perfectly.

Interspersed with the story was Bach’s music, each work infused with personal significance, from soprano Siobhan Stagg’s sweet-toned rendition of Bist du bei mir (from a notebook given to Anna Magdalena by her husband) to the comic Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern (the protagonist exasperated by a wilful, caffeine-addict daughter) from the Coffee Cantata, sung with good humour by Williams, accompanied by solid playing by strings from the AFCM Winter School along with violinist Pavel Fischer and double bassist Kees Boersma. Cellist Guy Johnston gave us the Prelude from the third Cello Suite while pianist Daniel de Borah conjured childhood music lessons with the Minuet in G (also from the Anna Magdalena notebooks) and a more sophisticated Prelude and Fugue in E Flat (BWV 552) as the Bach children grew up.

Duchen conjured the mortal gravity of Anna Magdalena’s near constant pregnancies and the horror of botched 18th-century eye surgeries with a quiet directness that nonetheless cut to the quick. The Goldner String Quartet’s performance of Contrapunctus 14 from The Art of Fugue at the pivotal moment – their clean, precise lines assured and beautiful – was very much the emotional climax of the concert, before Williams’ exquisitely shaped Mache dich mein Herze rein from the St Matthew Passion looked to the future of Johann Sebastian’s legacy.

While period instruments and gut strings might do more to evoke Bach’s time sonically, Being Mrs Bach was a beautifully crafted retelling of the ‘Bach’ story with a lot of heart.

Violinist Karen Gomyo took centre stage for the second Bach by Candelight concert, with stunning performances of all three of Bach’s solo violin Partitas. Alone on the stage, Gomyo had more than enough presence to fill the large theatre. Her gleaming sound resonant and full as the music unfurled hypnotically in the first Partita, Gomyo demonstrated not just fierce virtuosity but an unwavering musical intensity and sense of drama that had the audience spell-bound.

The third Partita (which Gomyo played second) saw the violinist joined by animations, created by animator Louise Harvey and producer Peter Moyles, which played out on a large screen behind her. While the animations were fascinating – tadpole-like figures trailed streamers, shifting patterns evoked dew on spider webs and geometric landscapes unfolded across the screen, in sequences timed to coincide with Bach’s movements – there was little discernible interplay between music and imagery and the visuals ultimately served to turn the volume down  on Gomyo’s performance, rather than enhancing the experience.

After interval, however, Gomyo’s performance of the second Partita – the violinist flanked on stage by two candelabras, creating a profound sense of ritual – was absolutely spectacular. The final, formidable Ciaccona was worth the price of admission alone.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville until August 5

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