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Marathon man

There was no getting away from Bach in London over Easter weekend.

Bach
Portraits of J S Bach (left) and his father (Photograph: Getty Images)

The banks were closed for the holiday. The Circle and District lines were closed for repairs. Le Pain Quotidien at Goodge Street was closed due to a water shutoff. Costa Coffee near Harrods had three patrons and a barista. But the Royal Albert Hall was open for Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Marathon. Even scaled down from 12 hours to nine due to a funding cut, it was a true marathon and a true holiday - what another Eliot called “pentecostal fire / at the dark time of year”. 

For the millennium celebrations 13 years ago, Gardiner and his perpetually Bach-ready ensemble presented Bach's surviving church cantatas on the right feast days in churches from London and Paris to Cracow and Iona, and wrapped it up with three performances at St Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue in New York in late December 2000. At the end of a century of Bach relentlessly made new (a story I have sought to tell in my book Reinventing Bach) this Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was ambitious in the extreme, and not just because of all the gear lugged and miles logged. With it Gardiner took hold of a lifetime of musical experience in Bach and rooted it in our common life by incorporating it into the most history-conscious of journeys, a pilgrimage.  

Set against the Pilgrimage, the Easter Monday Bach Marathon was a sprint. But it’s better to change comparisons altogether. Where the Pilgrimage presented Johann Sebastian Bach in situ, the Marathon took shape as Bach in the round. One critic saw the elliptical Hall only a third full and called the concert an event without an occasion. But from the stage (where I took part in two panel discussions) it seemed plenty eventful, an occasion all its own. Instead of fitting Bach into an established pattern - Good Friday, or Whitsunday, or the Proms - Sir John Eliot came up with a fresh one. Into the fag-end of Easter, the seam between winter and spring, the gap between sacred holiday and worldly getaway to Spain or wherever - into that liminal space he brought the music of Bach.

That’s what he has been doing all along. Though not openly religious, he puts the sacred side of Bach’s music front and center, evangelising for Bach (as in his documentary Bach: A Passionate Life, which aired on BBC2). Though intent on Bach, he is no Bach specialist; he holds his identification with the composer in check, and the name of his group - the Monteverdi Choir - keeps it there. 

The Marathon was a Gardiner production through and through, and yet the differences from his usual approach were obvious. Renowned for his work with choir and orchestra, he opened up the program to instrumental soloists: pianist Joanna MacGregor, violinist Viktoria Mullova, cellist Alban Gerhardt, and pipe organist John Butt (who has led performances of Bach's sacred works in church, concert hall, and recording studio).  The effect was striking. Not so often have audiences had the chance to hear Bach's great going-down-to-Hell cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden (1708) followed by Bach's chaconne for solo violin, composed a few years later; pretty rarely are the Goldberg Variations and the Mass in B minor, both from the 1740s, featured on the same programme. Side by side in the Bach biographies, side by side in our record collections, those works don't get to jostle against one another in the concert hall.  Here they did, and the music sounded different for it. The cantata and the chaconne struck bottom contrapuntally as works of mourning.  The Goldbergs and the Mass rang out as a double dose of brightness - music which, like the amp in This Is Spinal Tap, “goes to 11”. 

The juxtaposition of the life in Bach's music with life outside the Royal Albert Hall was telling, too. A church musician for most of his life, Bach was never so busy as at Easter, and here and now the yearly musical run-up to Easter can be a marathon in its own right. In London before Easter I ran into Bach wherever I turned. There he was at Handel House (which seats 24) in a recital by the lutenist Yair Avidor and the improvisatory violinist Jennifer Bennett. There he was at the BFI in a screening of Pasolini's great film of the Gospel According to St Matthew, which uses the St Matthew Passion in the soundtrack. There he was in two different ballet series advertised along the escalators on the Underground. There he was at Trafalgar Square in a St Matthew Passion recording run under the bloody live re-enactment of Christ's suffering and death beneath Nelson's Column. There he was in a church from his own time - St George, Hanover Square (built 1724) - as the Passion (composed 1729) marked Good Friday.  There he was on my publisher's phone line: the cello suites as music to hold on to. The Bach Marathon managed to situate Bach in Holy Week and in the turning world, too.  

A conductor is a shaper of sound, and with the Bach Marathon Sir John Eliot shaped a highly original Easter Monday. It was an occasion all right, and the couple of thousand of us who were there were a crowd - more Londoners than I had seen all weekend out in the city. The people wheeling their suitcases through Heathrow and Euston that day couldn't have known what they were missing.

Paul Elie is the author of "Reinventing Bach" (Union Books, £25).