Bach Never Came to Vienna

The Cantata Series at the Konzerthaus is finally bringing the solumn riches of Johann Sebastian to the city of operatic stage

On The Town | Cynthia Peck | November 2011

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is almost never played in Vienna. I did hear a Brandenburg Concerto last season, and the year before, an evening of Bach solo pieces for violin. But musicians here, born or trained, generally do not perform Bach. This is despite the fact that almost every string player who plays a graduation recital at Vienna’s eminent music conservatories has been obliged to play one of his solo suites. Bach’s works are relegated to some sort of (extremely difficult) étude that provides a rigorous test of skill.

But Bach has been held in awe by over two centuries of composers, musicians and even listeners, so what’s the problem here? It’s true that Bach never came to Vienna, but is that a reason to still snub him, 261 years after his death?

Bach’s legacy is most alive in Germany: in Cologne and Munich, Hannover and Hamburg, in Stuttgart and – the list could go on. In Switzerland, the Bach-Stiftung in St. Gallen is in the midst of a 25-year-long project of presenting all of Bach’s vocal works in monthly concerts.  And in Leipzig, where Bach spent his culminating years as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, his status approaches that of a saint. In St. Thomas’s church today, Bach’s tomb is where the altar would normally stand. For the Leipzig Thomanerchor, one of Germany’s most famous boys choirs, Bach is daily bread.

Originally, this difference in attitude certainly had something to do with religion. In the land of Luther, life is serious. There is a saying in Erfurt: "Laugh in the basement." And Bach’s music is, to all first appearances, solemn. In Catholic Vienna, music had to be splendid; it had to match the gilded interiors of its churches, with their flamboyant trappings and flourishes. The Latin words of the Mass had a mystical magic, and the drama of the operatic stage was never too far away.

Thus, in Vienna, the music of Bach didn’t "taste" right; it just couldn’t be understood. During the baroque period, the Viennese natural affinity was for music from Italy: the Monteverdi operas and the cheerful clearness of Vivaldi. Indeed, Vivaldi even died in Vienna. His grave was originally in the former churchyard of the Karlskirche.

Also, Bach did not write music for the Catholic mass. His over 200 cantatas follow the Lutheran liturgical year. They are in German, on texts adapted from the New Testament. Yes, the words are often serious. But the music is moving and full of a vital joy. It contains lush harmonic twists, and a richness and breadth of musical imagination. The cantatas are simply marvellous.

Finally, Vienna now has its own Bach project underway, something nearly unthinkable even a decade ago. The Konzerthaus Cantata series was called into existence a few years ago by Georg Nigl, a prominent Viennese bass-baritone whose specialty is 20th century opera, and Luca Pianca, a co-founder of Il Giardino Armonico, an innovative early music ensemble in Milan.

In mid-October we had the first concert of this season. Pianca is a master of the dramatic pause, and he enjoys the crunchy sound of baroque instruments. Which on occasion became too crunchy, with more noise of attack than actual tone. The Ensemble Claudiana has a distinct sound, but sometimes it was simply too loud. This may have to do with the acoustics of the Mozartsaal; they are not the same as a church, the setting for which Bach’s cantatas were written. This ensemble sounded best from the balcony.

Nigl, the Cantata series chief, had been called away to Berlin to fill in for a sick colleague in his signature role Wozzeck. (The affinity between baroque and contemporary music might seem odd at first, but in both realms, musicians are not trapped in tradition, but have the freedom to improvise and search for new stylistic direction.)  His replacement was Klaus Mertens, a veritable walking Bach instruction manual.  Mertens has recorded all of the Bach cantatas with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and his sovereignty was apparent from the first note.

The soprano Hanna Herfurtner had a clear, gentle voice most suited to her pastoral arias, and the alto, Caitlin Hulcup, had a joyous golden depth of tone. Martin Mitterrutzner’s tenor was flexible and bright. In all, a fine group. But Mertens was clearly the corypheus, the leader of the group.

The choir included the bell-like voices of eight Vienna Choir Boys, who shared a couple of stolen smiles while they were singing "Singet! Springet!" It’s fine that at least some young Viennese are getting the idea. We hope more of Vienna will join them soon.

The Bach Cantata series will continue in December with the long Christmas Oratorio over two successive evenings. Jauchzet and frohlocket (exulting and rejoicing) we shall be! ÷


The 20 Oct. concert will be broadcast on 107.3 Radio Stephansdom on 13 & 27 Nov. at 16:00.

Upcoming Performances:

Bach-Kantaten XIV Christmas Oratorium Part I-III, 7 Dec., 2011

Bach-Kantaten XV Christmas Oratorium Part IV–VI 8 Dec., 2011

Bach-Kantaten XVI, April 11, 2012

3., Lothringerstraße 20

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