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My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Cantata Psychology

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on August 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)

There is some debate about Bach’s first cantata for 1715 – Alles, was von Gott reborn (BWV 80a). Some of the music is lost and Bach later expanded it into Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in 1730. Therefore I shall return to it when – and hopefully not if – I reach that decade.

Therefore the first extant cantata of the year is Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) for April 1716 and Easter. Despite the innocently sounding Sonata title for the first movement, it is anything but a quiet affair. Opening with timpani and trumpets but scored for an orchestra including oboes and strings and including some delightful interplay with the trumpets, its moto perpetuo rhythmic drive must have had them literally tapping their feet, if not wishing they could dance down the aisle of the church. The first chorus, Der Himmel lacht! continues the joyousness of the opening movement and yet Bach conveys a sense of frantic, almost raucous, joy as the chorus sing of rejoicing and laughter. But this is suddenly and dramatically cut short at Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen (He who chose the grave for rest) before an earnest canonic section brings the movement to a close.

Following a recitative for the tenor, the first aria s in contrast to the opening movements, is written for bass and continuo only but remains a intensely rhythmically driven both in the vocal line and the continuo. The tenor returns for the second recitative and the second aria accompanied by strings only. The final aria, preceded by a recitative for the soprano, features an oboe obbligato. There is an almost pastoral feeling to Letzte Sunde, brich herein (Last hour, break forth) which is only tempered by the interjection of the strings with the chorale melody Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.

Here is an example of what I will be calling Bach’s “Cantata psychology”. The aria, on the surface, urges the congregation to prepare for Jesus’ “gleam of joy”, and as they sat there listening to the first time to this beautifully crafted aria, they would have been surprised to hear the melody of a hymn they would have known well from singing in the church as well as at home – If the hour of my death is at hand. Bach, himself an incredibly religious man by all accounts, would have realized the power of music to remind the congregation of their own – and his – mortality. And Bach reinforced this message in the closing chorale by using the same melody.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bach had a clear intention in mind when writing this cantata. It was to celebrate Easter and the glory of God, but to remind the congregation – and himself –that no matter how great their rejoicing should be, ultimately they should remember their mortality.

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, (BWV 165) – first performed in June 1715 – is much more modest both in terms of the forces Bach employed by also scale. The first movement for soprano – no introductory instrumental piece – with its weaving counterpoint in the strings and the melismatc vocal line convey the flowing water of the text. An aria for alto, post a simple recitative for bass, is scored for continuo only. The compound time signature reinforces the sense of quiet confidence of the text, of a belief in Jesus’ love for the celebrant. The succeeding recitative, scored for strings and arioso in nature leads into an aria for tenor with unison strings. I can’t help but think that the moto perpetuo of this movement – so different from the opening movement of the preceding cantata – refers to the Heilschläglein of the text before bringing the cantata to an end with a simple chorale.

Despite being very different in structure and nature, in these two cantatas we continue to see Bach flexing his musical and thelogical muscle, increasingly finding ways to bring his congregation closer to God – through both grandeur and contemplation – through his music.

(Vibrato)

In Baroque, BBC Proms, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on August 2, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Review – Partitas & Sonatas for Violin (BBC Proms, Friday 31 August & Saturday 1 August 2015)

Alina Ibragimova (Violin)

Vibrato or not? It’s a debate that has been going on since the authentic performance movement began and continues to be discussed – thankfully in a civilized manner – as well as to inform performance. Indeed, Roger Norrington, an early exponent of authentic performance has performed Mahler without vibrato. Leopold Mozart condemned it, yet Martin Agricola was writing about its ability help convey emotion in the 1520s.

It was also interesting on the first night of this two-event recital to hear that this was the first time that the BBC had programmed the solo violin partitas and sonatas in their entirety at the Proms, and that they had not already done so at Cadogan Hall. These performances also form part of a triptych with solo recitals by András Schiff and Yo-Yo Ma later in the season.

Any reservations that Alina Ibragimova might be swamped in such a gargantuan space were immediately dispelled with the first flourish of the first Partita in g minor. And despite standing right at the front of the stage, Ms Ibragimova created an immediate sense of hushed intimacy on both evenings.

The sound she produced was of the purist clarity and enabled the multiple voices written into Bach’s music – and beautifully weighted and balanced in every movement – to be clearly heard. For example in the second movement Fuga of the g minor partita, the opening movement of the C Major Partita or the simply glorious Andante from the Partita in a minor. Personally speaking, this is one of the most sublime movements written by Bach.

A momentary lapse in the Partita in d minor on the second evening resulted in a compelling – almost driven – performance of the entire work with performance of the closing Ciaconna of incredibly intensity.

But Ms Ibragimova also demonstrated incredible virtuosity. The vivacity and aplomb of the opening E Major Partita – which he later transcribed for organ and orchestra – and the closing of the A minor with its echo motif for example.

Personally, I am ‘pro vibrato’. The added dimension it gives to music – especially works such as these – even when doled out in the smallest amounts can invest the music with added emotional intensity. There is no denying Alina Ibragimova’s virtuosity, musicianship and clear love for these works have ensured that the ambition to perform the sonatas and partitas will be memorable. And yet, as I listened to her performances – and thought of those performances I own which I truly cherish such as those of Isabelle Faust, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Arthur Grumiaux – I have to admit that I wonted for even the smallest hint or suggestion of vibrato.

Tell-Tale Too Far

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 30, 2015 at 6:02 am

At what point does art go too far?

At what point do artists stop and think that perhaps their actions go beyond what is necessary to make a point?

At what point do artists think they should speak up?

I wonder if any of these questions came up during the gestation of the new production of Guillaume Tell at Royal Opera House?

Of course I think that productions – art in general – should be challenging but an advisory that the “production features a scene involving an adult theme and brief nudity” did nothing to prepare me – or quite a lot of the audience – to the escalating and vicious violence inflicted on Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera by director Damiano Michieletto. I don’t think I’ve attended any performance where booing has actually been heard during the performance itself. But as it became apparent that the rape scene wasn’t going to stop, as it went beyond uncomfortable to disturbing to watch, an isolated boo in the upper reaches of the auditorium gained momentum until quite a large number of the audience were booing.

Normally agnostic about booing, I admit that on this occasion I was on the side of the outraged. If Michieletto thinks it is fine to depict such graphic savagery – completelout of sync with the original libretto – then members of the public can exercise their rights too.

I questioned Covent Garden’s support of Thaddeus Strassberger’s Glare at the end of last year. In my view, the objectification of women and the violence against one of the leading female singers in Strassberger’s production was questionable and the sudden violence at the end was neither smart nor honest to the plot.

With Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden went even further. During rehearsals didn’t anyone step back and think that in the context of the story and of the music, what Michieletto was asking the performers to do was wrong?

If it’s okay to ask performers what their stance is on Putin’s homophobic intent, then one has to ask what the performers in this production thought during rehearsals? And more importantly what they think after the audience’s reaction on the first night?

That single error of judgement sadly marred the entire experience for me. A staid and stodgy first act and a general creative malaise in terms of the production had begun to be redeemed in the Second Act. But despite a general improvement in the singing, and an increased athleticism and drama in the pit, the rape scene could not be erased or swept to one side. The singers, and in particular Gerald Finley, Malin Byström and John Osborn gave some committed if uneven performances.

They were, quite rightly, recognized and cheered by the audience but if opera is the complete experience, then the worm in this apple made the whole thing unpalatable.

It completely destroyed the magic.

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