Live Review: The Path to Bach

Presented by the Australian Bach Society



The Path to Bach
The Schemelli Songbook and the Liturgical Music of Weimar and Leipzig
Australian Bach Society featuring Robert Macfarlane (tenor), John O’Donnell (harpsichord), and Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba)
German Church East Melbourne, 7 May


The audience in attendance at The Path to Bach was treated not only to a performance by three extraordinary early music specialists, but a charming concert experience thanks to the warm hospitality of the Australian Bach Society and the German Lutheran Trinity Church. Interrupting the pre-concert chatter, the church’s pastor and the president of the Australian Bach Society greeted the audience (and unexpectedly shared a lovely anecdote about a favourite mug featuring the face of J.S. Bach).

The Australian Bach Society is an organisation established in 2011 with the intent of promoting the work of J.S. Bach and his contemporaries. Based in Melbourne, they often operate behind the scenes of the wider music community by providing grants for the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Bach Competition and helping to attract high profile performers such as Leipzig’s St. Thomas Boys Choir to the city. In this spirit, Leipzig-based Australian tenor Robert Macfarlane was asked to create a program featuring the works of The Schemelli Songbook.

The Schemelli Songbook is a large catalogue of 950 sacred lieder and arias collected in 1736 by the Music Director of Zeitz Castle, George Christian Schemelli. Around 70 of these are known to have been composed or revised by Bach, and it was these which formed the basis of the afternoon’s concert. Not only a thoughtful performer of this repertoire, Macfarlane is evidently something of a scholar. Approached with the brief for the concert, he set about selecting and translating works from The Songbook. This was no haphazard group of pieces looking to fill a designated time slot. Macfarlane’s curation was well thought out in terms of thematic material, key relations, and mood.

Macfarlane’s approach to the works was thoughtful and highlighted the narrative aspect of the music. His did not perform with a conventional early music tone, nor with one which ever strayed into dramatic traditional operatic practice. Rather, he sang directly, allowing his understanding of the weighty religious texts and the musical material to come through. Particularly special were the very quiet sections, which Macfarlane managed to deliver at a dynamic near impossible for most tenors – without sacrificing control, tone or expression. Laura Vaughan and John O’Donnell were impressive throughout with their accompaniment, with the three performers giving a polished ensemble performance.

The instrumental works chosen as interludes were an interesting addition to the program, and showcased the talents of O’Donnell and Vaughan. The two performed a work by August Kühnel, one of the few sacred works of this period for viola da gamba. Vaughan impressed with the lyricism she achieved in the upper registers of the instrument. O’Donnell also performed two works for solo harpsichord: Johann Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonata No. 4, and an overture by Telemann. His playing was beautifully voiced, and the way he sustained melodic lines on the harpsichord was remarkable. These works did not match the musical interest of those by Bach – instead seeming to serve the purpose of showcasing the performers rather than making any notable contribution to the program as a whole. However, the two played with great technique and musical understanding.


Image supplied. Credit: Peter Haberberger.

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