Bath BachFest review – the brilliant master and his assorted cousins

Fiona Maddocks
·2-min read

Sound trumpets, bang drums. Concerts and festivals, the real thing, are promised from mid-May – a prospect so remote these past months that every live online musical offering has been freighted with extra worth. Take Bath’s annual Mozart and Bach weekends, highlights of the low point of a low year. When November’s Mozart event was hastily, but skilfully, scrambled online, it seemed inconceivable we’d be in the same position when Bach’s turn came this month. Yet we were. Last weekend, four small-scale programmes by leading musicians had all the intimacy we expect from this expertly honed series. Concerts took place nearby at Wiltshire Music Centre – not as glamorous as the Bath Assembly Rooms but handsome, and equipped for broadcast.

The named composer is the centre point, but others get a look-in. Here the focus was on Bach “and his baroque contemporaries”, from the familiar Tartini and Frescobaldi to the more distant, including members of the Bach clan. In the rich a cappella programme offered by exemplary vocal ensemble the Cardinall’s Musick, we met Johann Sebastian’s rarely encountered first cousin once removed, Johann Christoph, and his third cousin, Johann Ludwig, known as JL Bach, as well as JS himself. This is the simplified version. You’re allowed, as director Andrew Carwood agreed, in conversation with presenter Katy Hamilton, to be confused. Do not press me on who Johann Bach was (JB, not JSB), but his motet Unser Leben ist ein Schatten – Our Life Is a Shadow – is a corker.

In her solo recital, the violinist Rachel Podger, a name synonymous with flawless period instrument playing, showed how JS Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 in G major could find new lightness and vitality transposed to violin. As if in response, the next day Adrian Brendel, in his concert with harpsichordist Sophie Yates, played Bach’s Suite No 3 in C major as intended: on solo cello. Brendel’s lithe, springy approach pointed up the dance rhythms, a ready match for Podger in gravitas, grace and spirit.

The last concert was conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings. The English Concert, all outstanding soloists, played Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos 4 and 5: a dazzling finale.