The new sound


(Grafik: parole)

In the Musikfest Stuttgart 2016 the Bachakademie, conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann, presents  for the first time the new sound of its reformed ensembles Gaechinger Cantorey: in the opening concert, in the first of the lunchtime concerts »Sichten auf Bach« and in the final concert.


The opening concert with Claodio Monteverdi's »Vespers of the Blessed Virgin« sets the artistic and aesthetic direction for this new kind of sound. As a large-scale collection of solo, two and three-part vocal concerti, together with six, seven, eight and ten-part choral works, an instrumental sonata, a Magnificat and an Ave Maris stella for soloists, choir and orchestra, the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin is quite simply thequintessential sacred vocal work of the 17th century.

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The forces it is scored for read like a roll-call for the sound aesthetic of the Baroque period: a 17-piece instrumental ensemble comprising violins, trumpets and organ, together with the typical Baroque instruments of viola da gamba, cornett, theorbo, recorders, violone and dulcian accompanies a 26-strong vocal ensemble. Although »accompany« isn’t quite the right description, for the use of period instruments guarantees the perfect fusion of singers and instrumentalists to create a blended, yet transparent overall sound which simply cannot be achieved with modern instruments.

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As well as the decision to use Baroque instruments and smaller choral forces, the pitch chosen plays an important role in performance. Monteverdi’s »Vespers« were written in 1610 in Mantua, but may well have been composed earlier with Venice in mind (there is also evidence for this in the printed publication of the work which was issued in Venice). There, sacred music was performed at a’ = 465 Hz, even higher than the present-day modern pitch of 440 Hz. This pitch related firstly to the tuning of organs there, and secondly undoubtedly to the large spaces in churches, which could be filled better by an ensemble tuned to a higher pitch than one tuned to a lower pitch.

Monteverdi’s Vespers will be performed in the opening concert of the Musikfest Stuttgart on 1 September 2016 in the Liederhalle at the higher pitch of 465 Hz, with a smaller choir and an instrumental ensemble performing on Baroque instruments.

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With the Musikfest 2016, the newly-founded Baroque orchestra and the newly-constituted choir of the Bachakademie will perform under the joint name Gaechinger Cantorey  in the future. This single name for both ensembles is based on the integrated musical approach and sound ideal of the Baroque. At the same time, by adopting a name rich in tradition, it makes reference to the successful performance history of the choir which Helmuth Rilling founded in 1954.

In the first lunchtime concert in the »Sichten auf Bach« series, on 6 September in the Stiftskirche, the Baroque sound of the 18th century will be particularly evident. The programme contains three Bach cantatas on the theme of riches. What kind of sound can audiences expect – and what is different or new about this kind of sound?

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If we put modern and Baroque instruments alongside each other for comparison, we can speak of »high pressure instruments« and »low pressure instruments«. This isn’t only about the higher, modern tuning pitch of 440 Hz compared with the lower, Baroque pitch of 415 Hz (sometimes even as low as 392 Hz). SIt’s also about the nature of the instruments. A Baroque oboe, for example, is played with much less pressure than a modern oboe. And so it is far more suitable for the typical »colla parte« writing found in Baroque music, that is where the part-writing in the oboe is identical, for example, to a virtuoso vocal part or the first violin part.Fast, long melodic passages, common practice in Baroque music, are ideally suited to playing on period instruments (and are almost torture on the modern oboe).

It is similar with the string instruments, all of which are strung with gut strings, have a lower finger board, and because of the way they were made, allow for closer contact between the musician’s body and the instrument – indeed they require this. The most striking example is the cello, which – as it has no spike – is held by the player between the knees. To this is added the considerably lighter Baroque bow, which in the same way allows fast passages and the »speaking music-making« so characteristic of Baroque music to be played to best effect.

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If we consider the overall sound of a Baroque orchestra, then its individual instrumental components come together to form a perfectly matched musical organism. No instrumental group has to hold back particularly in order not to drown out the others (the best example of this is, surprisingly, the light-sounding natural trumpets).

Of course, composers knew exactly about the sound qualities and characteristic features of the respective instruments, which they exploited with precision to shape their musical ideas, such as when changing between open notes and stopped notes on the horn, thereby achieving particular sound colours.

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In this world the harpsichord and organ form the rhythmic and tonal backbone of an orchestra. A special feature of the new Baroque orchestra of the Bachakademie can be found right here, in the logical choice of an organ as the heart of the ensemble’s sound: the Bachakademie has commissioned a historical replica of a chamber organ recently been discovered in Seerhausen, Saxony. Extensive research has shown this to be from the workshop of the legendary Gottfried Silbermann, representing the central German Baroque sound, as used in the circle directly around Bach.

Bach knew Silbermann and was familiar with his organs as an expert assessor. At the same time, Silbermann’s instruments had a particular influence on the kind of sound heard around Dresden, where the famous Dresden court ensemble which Bach so admired was to be found, and which set standards in orchestral playing throughout Europe. The Gaechinger Cantorey is basing its new approach on this kind of sound and orchestral arrangement, starting off with the sound of a replica Silbermann organ (of which there is evidence that a similar instrument stood in St Thomas’s School).

The final concert of the Musikfest intentionally continued an established Musikfest tradition with a performance of a selected Handel oratorio (think back to »Solomon« in 2014 with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and »Israel in Egypt« in 2013). This time it was Handel’s »L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato« HWV 55. The theme of the work forms the perfect conclusion at the end of the Musikfest and in particular, with its musical structure and distinctive performance history, it represents the ideal work to introduce the newly-formed ensembles of the Bachakademie. At the premiere of the work on 27 February 1740, Handel chose two Concerti grossi as introductions for the first two parts of the oratorio (op. 6 no. 1 for the first part and op. 6 no. 3 for the second). He introduced the third part himself as organ soloist with his Organ Concerto op. 7 no. 1. Handel’s three practical performing ingredients offer a perfect platform for the new organ and the newly-founded Baroque orchestra of the Bachakademie.

The link, both historical and in terms of sound, from Monteverdi’s Vespers in the opening concert via the Bach cantatas in the »Sichten auf Bach« to the Handel oratorio in the final concert, reflects the core repertoire of the newly-founded ensembles. The forces used and the approach to performance practice, adapted to the individual works and their historical context, form the signature features of the new sound of the Bachakademie.

[Henning Bey]