European Music Festival | Stuttgart, Germany

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The Independent Culture

In the 250th anniversary year of Bach's death, passion for the great JS in his home country even extends to accordion recitals in the street. The snappily-named Europäisches Musikfest Stuttgart: Passion 2000, which finished on Sunday, was mounted by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, known in Britain chiefly for the work of its artistic director, the conductor Helmuth Rilling. The choir he founded in 1954, the Gächinger Kantorei, and his orchestra, the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, concluded the festival - which also ran a choral course and an academic symposium as well as many concerts, concluding with the St Matthew Passion .

In the 250th anniversary year of Bach's death, passion for the great JS in his home country even extends to accordion recitals in the street. The snappily-named Europäisches Musikfest Stuttgart: Passion 2000, which finished on Sunday, was mounted by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, known in Britain chiefly for the work of its artistic director, the conductor Helmuth Rilling. The choir he founded in 1954, the Gächinger Kantorei, and his orchestra, the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, concluded the festival - which also ran a choral course and an academic symposium as well as many concerts, concluding with the St Matthew Passion .

Though some of the playing was a bit wooden, this performance did much to demonstrate the continuing validity of Bach played on modern instruments at fairly brisk speeds. Unusually, the solo vocal parts were divided among no fewer than 20 mainly young, mostly German singers. Unevenness of standard and style, as well as frequent platform traffic, was compensated for by the high quality of the best soloists; the clarity and unpretentious intensity of Matthias Vieweg's Christus (the only singer to retain a single part throughout) was particularly admirable. The real glory of the performance, however, was Rilling's choir, which sang with both enormous precision and energetic musicality.

Among the other events I caught during the festival's final four days were a Bach pilgrimage around four city venues to hear the complete Clavier-Ubüng performed on piano, harpsichord and organ by four international Bach specialists. It was delightful to end up in the magnificent Weisser Saal of the Neues Schloss for some late-night contemplation provided by the Goldberg Variations. But only the Russian pianist Evgeni Koroliov, playing the six partitas, offered compelling communication as well as impeccable scholarship.

An especially important and innovative dimension to the festival was provided by specially commissioned works, one based on each Passion story, from four distinguished composers: Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov and Tan Dun. Very good things were reported of Golijov's Latin take on St Mark, La Pasión Según San Marcos. But the only one of the four I was able to hear was Tan's Water Passion after St Matthew.

Staged around a cross shape formed by 17 transparent water bowls, lit magically from below, this setting intelligently and often movingly incorporates Tan's obsession with water into the Passion narrative, which is told in a highly imaginative fashion by soprano and bass soloists, mixed chorus and six instrumentalists, including crucial roles for three percussionists, plus electronic processing.

The performance itself was notable, not least, for a stunning account of the difficult soprano part by a young American, Elizabeth Keusch, who will surely not remain unknown for long. Stephen Bryant was the impressive bass; the composer himself conducted. The work will receive its British premiere at the Barbican's Fire Crossing Water festival in a couple of weeks' time.

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