Thursday, December 26, 2019

Frank Liebscher (Germany) performs movements from J.S.Bach's Suites for Violoncello on the saxophone at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Frank Liebscher (
A Christmas concert of a very different kind took place at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday December 21st 2019. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, was a devout Protestant. It therefore stands to reason that his music should be played at the seat of the Provost of the German Protestant Ministries in the Holy Land and the headquarters of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. But Bach’s ‘Cello Suites played on the alto saxophone? The saxophone family of instruments was only invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s! This was going to be interesting! Frank Liebscher (Leipzig, Germany) was the artist who would perform movements from Bach’s solo ‘Cello Suites for what could only be called a “very curious” audience. 


Following welcoming words from Rev. Rainer Stuhlmann, interim Propst of the Redeemer Church, Liebscher opened his program with the Prelude from Suite V, his playing rich in melodic content, the occasional low notes joining to form a skeleton bass over which the artist’s voice-play emerged effective in the saxophone’s different registers.


We have read much about J.S.Bach’s  extraordinary skills in improvisation, of how he, for example, improvised a complex six-part fugue for Frederic the Great, King of Prussia or an elaborate chorale fantasia lasting almost half an hour for Jan Adam Reincken, organist of St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg. We also know that Bach put improvisation skills at the centre of his teaching and that they were part-and-parcel of his own daily music-making. It is important for today’s musicians to reclaim the integrated, communicative art of improvisation as a part of composition and performance. The element of improvisation was present throughout Liebscher’s program in one way or another, from a fanfare figure preceding his playing of Suite I to the addition of passing notes, ornamental features and noble flourishes. It is no mean challenge to adapt music whose technique is natural on the ‘cello to a wind instrument. Liebscher’s easeful, brilliant technique figured considerably throughout the performance, with much jaunty dexterity of arpeggios and runs, some so flexed and so breathless as to skip by before the ear had time to process them. Liebscher’s background is, after all, in jazz. I must admit that I found the artist’s wistful, more strictly-measured playing of the two BourrĂ©es from Suite III calming, touching and most satisfying.


As to the mysterious and mystic inner workings of Bach’s mind, these found expression in Liebscher’s poignant playing of the Preludes from Suites V and of II and in the Sarabande from Suite V, the latter’s tragic course set with bijou ornaments and punctuated with small, pensive pauses, its climax tender rather than triumphant. There might have been a few raised eyebrows from any members of the authentic early music movement in the audience (had they been there); happily, Liebscher’s playing of Bach was, however, clear of vibrato, save for his engaging in it to ornament final notes with a touch of poesie. What was also most pleasing was the artist’s familiarity with church acoustics, as he took into account the building’s play of echoes. For his encore, the artist played his own skilful arrangement of J.S.Bach's  fantasia on the chorale "Wachet auf" (Awake, the voice is calling us). The concert was a unique, interesting and inspiring event.


Dr. Frank Liebscher brings a rich academic- and artistic background to his performance. Composer, arranger, band leader and sideman in a wide range of genres, his teaching experience covers the school-, music school- and university levels; he lectures and holds workshops internationally. With a PhD in music education (his dissertation was titled “Mental Practice - A Creative Approach to Jazz Improvisation”) Frank Liebscher's current interdisciplinary research focuses on music- and practice methodology, deliberate practice and performance studies.