PRINCETON, N.J. — If ever there was a composer to be celebrated on Father’s Day, it is Bach. Of his 20 children, 10 died in infancy or early childhood, but that still left his hands full. And though inhumanly busy with composition, performance and teaching, he took an active hand in the children’s upbringing and education.
Given his volatile temperament, his ministrations were probably not always pretty, but they were evidently effective. Four of his boys (of course) went on to achieve fame as composers themselves.
But that is not what John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists were celebrating here at the Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on Sunday. The timing, in fact, was coincidental.
The concert was a late appendage to a European tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the choir’s founding by Mr. Gardiner, in 1964. Sunday simply happened to be one of the few dates on which both the choir and the auditorium, on the Princeton University campus, were available.
Yet the concert was something of a family affair all the same, as Judith Scheide, who presented it in her name and that of her husband, William Scheide, noted from the stage. It reunited Bach, she added, with “three of his most loyal sons”: Mr. Scheide, who founded the Bach Aria Group in 1946 and directed it for 34 years; Mr. Gardiner, who in addition to his countless Bach performances and recordings published a magisterial study of the composer last year, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” (Alfred A. Knopf); and the premier Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, the author of the superb “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician” (W. W. Norton, 2000), who had traveled from Boston for the concert.
Among other distinctions, Mr. Scheide, 100 and infirm, is the owner of the1748 Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, one of the few faithful renderings of the composer that survive, now taken to be definitive. That painting hung in the Gardiner home in Dorset, England, when Mr. Gardiner was a child, its previous owner having fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and turned it over to the Gardiner family for safekeeping.
Mr. Scheide, who bought the painting in 1951, has decreed that on his death it be given to the Bach Archive in Leipzig, Germany, whose new president, succeeding the retired Mr. Wolff, is none other than Mr. Gardiner. “Someday, the portrait will be back in his hands,” Ms. Scheide said.
As expected, the performances were wonderful. Mr. Gardiner’s troops are always superbly drilled, and he has always favored vivid music making over doctrinaire or purist considerations.
With a chorus of 30 (large by today’s standards, and all the more glorious for it), he offered vital performances of Bach’s motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing Unto the Lord a New Song,” BWV 225) and Cantata No. 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death”). Father’s Day or not, celebration is indeed the only word for performances on this level.
Mr. Gardiner was almost apologetic for intruding music of Handel into this Bachfest: Handel’s wonderful Psalm setting “Dixit Dominus” (HWV 232). No apologies needed. This concert was a privilege to attend.
Bachfest Celebrates Monteverdi Choir’s 50th Anniversary