More people attended the Bach 2000 concerts during the Melbourne Festival than lived in Leipzig while Bach was its cantor between 1723 and his death in 1750. The marketing opportunity of that 250th anniversary builds on the tercentenary of his birth only fifteen years ago when complete CD editions confirmed the triumph of the authentic performance school. Its scant voices and players are cheaper to record and tour.

The heart and brain of the Festival was Bach 2000, a schedule of 17 concerts over 16 nights glorying in the church music of Johann Sebastian Bach – 43 cantatas, 7 motets, 2 masses, both Passions and the Magnificat, featuring four prominent overseas ensembles and three Australian groups.

Bach 2000 opened in St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral when the eight voices of the Cantus Colln began the B-minor Mass with a Kyrie marred by complacent playing and a rasping bass. The Gloria improved whenever the singers demonstrated their powers of ensemble. Then, alto Elizabeth Popien’s alto filled the nave. The chorus picked up pace while the younger tenor steadied and the elder one soared.

From there, instrumentalists and vocalists advanced through the credo to the capstone of Bach’s plan, the consecutive choruses on the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, the first ravishing as the word becomes flesh, the second a touch monochromatic until the moment of death, and the third a rollicking dance. The hitherto creaking bass returned with a theatrical swing as if restored to life. The chorus again showed its worth in slowing down throughout the Confiteor with no loss of impetus. Instead of the swaying so often heard in the Sanctus in imitation of the censer’s arc, the orchestra propelled us into the Osanna.

The rising quality was cut short because the eight singers were kept together and hard by the band, thereby denying the dialogue that Bach set up between the two choirs and the orchestra as a third group of voices. The lesser tenor now matched the consistent delicacy of the flutist for the Benedictus before Popien again swept us into the sublime. The chorus, however, answered its concluding prayer for peace with a whimper.

As often as Cantus Colln displayed the beauty of its vocal unison, the vastness of St Patrick’s swallowed the chamber style favoured by director Konrad Junghanel.

Two nights later, both the ensemble qualities and solo transitions from Cantus Colln were much clearer from either the front or at the rear of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. One indisputable aspect of Bach’s genius sorely needed in Melbourne was his apprehension of acoustics, which let him rearrange, at short notice, his musical forces to match their performance space. The difficulties with clarity and balance noticeable from all four visiting groups at St Patrick’s suggest that Archbishop Pell may need an exorcist.

That problem was most evident when the 72 boys of the Windsbacher Knabenchor collaborated with thirty-nine players from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Only the tenor, Markus Schafer, was strong enough in all registers to deliver any word painting.

When that same combination of performers attempted the Christmas Oratorio in the Concert Hall, it became obvious that the modern instruments were too heavy for the boys choir. Soprano Ingrid Schmithusen, however, emerged from the previous night’s aural fog to display a boyish, yet well-rounded feeling for the lines. Also revealed was the ponderous direction of Karl-Friedrich Beringer. After the opening bar did not sound the attack, languidness overtook the whole.

The Australian Bach Ensemble was a scratch group for this Festival, and its newness showed in comparison with the Trinity College Choir. The Ensemble, however, offered some of the finest soloists of Bach 2000, such as bass Stephen Grant and counter-tenor James Sanderson, and splendid flute and oboe da caccia playing from Ashley Solomon and Anne Gilby.

The final week of Bach 2000, with the Vocale Gent from Flanders and the Bach Collegium Japan, restored faith in the blessings that flow from flying in overseas groups. A selection of the more colour-filled cantatas from several superb soloists supported by impeccable musicianship reignited enthusiasm for their combined presentation of the Matthew Passion in the Concert Hall.

Transferring the Matthew Passion from a church to a concert hall posed the question of how to achieve vivid Baroque sounds from multiple choirs. The compromise was to place the two main sets of instrumentalists and singers on either side of the stage, with the National Boys Choir along the rear. This disposition delivered antiphonal effects to most listeners but could not match the work’s operatic tendencies.

Much of the three-hour passion is sprung speech, and most of that is carried by the evangelist, a high tenor role which Gerd Turk began splendidly and finished magnificently, displaying every colour from sweetness to distress with superb diction and flawless histrionics.

Although the evangelist has the biggest part, Jesus remains at the center of Bach’s creation for Christ’s agonies are the basis of faith in salvation. This theology means that the singer must have the deepest of the three base voices. Peter Kooij met that demand but the slight burr around his singing conflicted with the halo of strings that Bach used to indicate divinity.

The second of the bass parts went to the baritone Morten Ernest Lassen whose youthful timbres and flexible expressions brought nice contrasts with Kooij’s Jesus.

Alto Annette Markert is possessed of such rich, dark and warm qualities that her medium power is both frustrating and irrelevant to the pleasures gained from the pathos she established. Soprano Deborah York has the small voice, precise delivery, comfortable lower register and thin boyish high range favoured by the back-to-original-noises movement. In their brief duet, the delights to be heard from both women complemented each other as well as any of the flute and oboe pairings.

Bach 2000 ended with a triumph which eased the concern about the acoustic in St Patrick’s and rebutted the allegations that Festival director Jonathan Mills’s focus on Bach was unpopular. As midnight approached, a capacity audience thrilled to the Vocale Gent under its founder, Philippe Herreweghe, whose phrasing redeemed an often turgid chorale in Cantata 172. The impact of an unresolved chord in their Magnificat epitomised the attention to significant detail that ennobled its every bar.

At the State Theatre, the French contemporary movement group, Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu, caught the spirit of the dance that pervades even Bach’s most religious compositions. His creativity also resides with contemporary composers who build on his discoveries. For jazz musicians to share in that creative inheritance they will need to move beyond the over-rehearsed piano arrangements of Jacques Louissier, the first half of whose Festival program was all Bach, and towards the improvisations of the trio’s bass player and drummer, Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac and Andre Arpino.

The authentic Bach as creator-tradesman is buried beneath the pedants who dispute how many musicologists can float on a melisma. Arguments rage over Bach because he carries an extra-musical significance. Atheists and Anglicans can concur that Bach is the most inventive composer ever. For secular humanists, he is the master mathematician, a giant of the Enlightenment. This contrary crew acknowledges a greatness that was rooted in a world which none of us can any longer inhabit.