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Bach and Sons & Daughters

It’s no surprise that period performance pioneer Sir John Eliot Gardiner called his book on J S Bach Music in the Castle of Heaven. Nor that eminent British musicologist Wilfrid Meller named his Bach and the Dance of God. The great genius of Baroque music is inextricably linked with the Almighty – and not only because he wrote so much music around religious themes. He’s also been a musical god, or at least a benevolent father (or perhaps Father), to countless musical sons and daughters down the ages – as Royal Northern Sinfonia’s 2017/18 season sets out to uncover.

It’s not hard to see where those god-like comparisons come from. There’s something mysterious, slightly unknowable about the man himself (indeed, there’s plenty about his life that we’re simply not sure of). But as for what he created – well, it seems almost miraculous in the teeming complexity of its invention, but also deeply human in its compassion and the intensity of its expression.

There’s the chance to immerse yourself in both those sides of Bach’s creations during RNS’ season, with a clutch of landmark pieces that define his profoundly perceptive music. On the spiritual side, alongside a collection of Bach’s radiant choral music, there’s the jubilant seasonal celebration of his Christmas Oratorio, which dresses the Nativity story in all the splendours of the Baroque, as well as the majestic St John Passion, often called the closest Bach came to opera in its achingly poignant telling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Far more down-to-earth are Bach’s sparkling Brandenburg Concertos – probably the most mellifluous job application in musical history – which get their own very special concert, paired with more recent music they’ve inspired. And Music Director Lars Vogt launches the new Piano Greats series with one of the keystones in the keyboard repertoire. In his Goldberg Variations, Bach transforms an innocuous-sounding theme into something truly profound through his seemingly unstoppable invention. His visionary Art of Fugue, played by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, is as full of contrapuntal complexity as anything he wrote – yet also surging with passion.

It was Bach’s own offspring (he famously had 20 sons and daughters) who benefited from his musical insights – and from the kudos of having such a famous dad, of course. But they also pushed music ever onwards in search of deeper expression – Wilhelm Friedemann Bach steering us towards the music of Haydn and Mozart in his solemn D minor Sinfonia Johann Christian Bach virtually establishing the modern symphony before our very eyes (and ears) in his G minor Symphony and most pioneering of all, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach pushing us firmly into the Classical era with pieces such as his exquisite Oboe Concerto.

But later composers, too, drew inspiration and courage from the great Baroque master’s music. Mozart, for example, in his austere and dramatic Adagio and Fugue in C minor, or Brahms in the great contrapuntal climax to his Fourth Symphony (20 Apr), which injects the ancient passacaglia form with a thoroughly Romantic sensibility.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when Bach’s music was overlooked, but it was siblings Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn who led the 19th-century revival – which not only links together the RNS season’s two guiding themes, but also provides a chance to sample Fanny’s glittering String Quartet, shot through with nods to the Baroque genius that she and her brother so admired. Even Vaughan Williams got in on the act. His Violin Concerto (or ‘Concerto accademico’) of 1925 is an overt homage to Bach’s beautifully lyrical Concerto for Two Violins, with which it handily shares the programme.

Which brings us almost bang up to date. And not surprisingly, a raft of today’s composers have taken inspiration from Bach’s deeply human genius. He’s the subject of one of the snapshots in British composer Errollyn Wallen’s perky Photography (she calls him her musical hero), and Americans Melinda Wagner and Aaron J Kernis make his exuberance and elegance very much their own (all three works are performed in the special Brandenburg evening on 13 Jan). You can hear a lot of Bach in the profoundly spiritual music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, but in his witty Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte... (translated as ‘If Bach had been a beekeeper…’), it’s the letters of Bach’s name that he transforms into busily buzzing textures.

If anyone can rise to the deep compassion and extraordinary expressiveness of Bach’s religious music, though, it’s James MacMillan. His extraordinary choral St Luke Passion is an immensely powerful retelling of Christ’s crucifixion that takes its inspiration directly from Bach’s own masterly passions – and shows beyond doubt that Bach’s sons and daughters are very much still among us today.

David Kettle