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Bach's Magnificat review (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

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The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is celebrating its 25th birthday. This 50-piece orchestra that plays 18th century instruments (though it was only about half that size this evening) played two pieces by Bach and one by the Russian-Australian, Elena Kats-Chernin. Bach might be the father of baroque but it was Kats-Chernin’s work that blew me away; given a real workout by the ABO.

But first, there was the Magnificat (BWV 243a, in E Flat Major), written in 1723 features five soloists, a five-part choir and orchestra. The ABO has gone with Bach’s rarely heard original version, which he revised a decade later, shifting a gear, to D Major. Its 30-minute duration is succinct, disciplined and eloquent. One can’t help but marvel, time and again, at Bach’s incomparable ability to weave elements together, but his even greater genius is in making the compositionally complex sound simple, straightforward, accessible and wonderful.

You’re unlikely to hear Bach as authentically played as by the ABO, thanks to its period instruments making for a warm, intimate sound, and its scrounging for original manuscripts, often in the composer’s own hand. It’s that passion and dedication that sets them apart.

Jane Sheldon was the featured soprano and her top register is, well, dare I say, magnificat. Among the other singers, counter tenor Max Riebl distinguished himself, filling the hall with his soaring, mellifluous, superbly-controlled tone.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s Prelude and Cube stood out for me. It’s a pun of sorts, referring to Bach’s definitive Prelude and Fugue and her commissioned homage to the master, but one also informed by modernity and and Australian sensibility.

It’s a varied piece — eclectic, even — which perhaps sums up Australia; a still nascent, disparate, almost confused nation, geographically and culturally. There are elements of the pastoral, with sweeping strings evoking hills, valleys and expanse. Kats-Chernin makes very full use of both orchestra and choir in this two movement world premiere, in honour of the of same. It reaches a fever-pitch, very Russian in character; grand, defiant and forcefully expressive. The work was written on an almost impossible deadline and, just perhaps, this sense of urgency and energy are written into the score, which is truly epic in scope and texture. It’s thrilling.

It’s worth noting that Bach wasn’t greatly esteemed in his lifetime. He never knew the fame or fortune of numerous of his contemporaries. Now, we regard him as the composer’s composer. Let’s not make the same mistake, in our lifetimes or hers, with Elena Kats-Chernin. Let’s make her as rich and famous as Kylie Minogue. And, while we’re at it, let’s help make the next 25 years of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra even more illustrious.

Bach’s Magnificat is at the City Recital Hall until 1 March. Tickets are available at brandenburg.com.au

 

Featured image by Steven Godbee

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