Shuffling Amidst Genius

In Classical Music, JS Bach on June 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Listening to JS Bach Cantatas (Soloists, Monteverdi Players & Chorus, John Elliott Gardiner)

JS Bach is simply one of the ‘greats’. Even his most intimate works – for example the works for solo keyboard – have a quiet grandeur and emotional impact that is not only unmatched by the majority of his Baroque colleagues but even by the generations of composers that followed. There is a clarity of form and an innate sense of musicality that often just leaves me speechless.

His cantatas must stand near the pinnacle  if not at the summit, of his musical œuvre. Bar the Passions they encapsulate all the things that make JS Bach a great and magnificent composer and a genius.

I have all twenty-odd CDs recorded by John Elliott Gardiner and his Monteverdi Soloists on their pilgrimage. It’s impressive, to say the least, that when Deutsche Gramophon cancelled their commitment to record all Bach’s cantatas, Gardiner took it upon himself to launch a label to finish this mission. Thus Soli Deo Gloria was born, a clear tribute to the phrase that Bach himself wrote at the end of each and every cantata that he wrote. And what an amazing achievement it is to complete the task with such aplomb and near perfect performances.

But I have to admit that it’s more than a challenge to contemplate listening to more than two or three complete cantatas in immediate succession.

So thank goodness for technology and in particular the shuffle function on my iPod. Naturally listening to complete cantatas is still the best way to appreciate the skill and the overall emotional impact that Bach achieved in each individual work and I love that SDG’s Facebook page gives a much needed helping hand in indicating which cantatas play on particular days. However selecting shuffle does afford the opportunity to marvel at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity and skill as well as getting a sense – even if only fleeting – of the depth and sincerity of his religious belief.

It should be said that without the texts in front of me – and only a very rudimentary grasp of German, the focus here is very much on the music. Apologies. I love Bach’s cantatas so perhaps at a later date I’ll return to write about specific works as a whole – texts, symbolism and all.

So hitting shuffle – and in admission skipping over chorales and simple recitatives throughout – the first piece is – quite surprisingly – the opening chorus from Cantata No. 78, Jesu, Der Du Meine Seele. This is based on a chaconne and reminds me immediately how Bach took contemporary dance forms and integrated them into even his most devotional works. Taken at a stately tempo, Gardiner and his chorus let the delicate interplay of the various orchestral parts in the instrumental episodes have equal importance. From the start there’s an overriding sense of momentum as Bach constantly develops and modifies the descending motif and, at one point inverting it – a simple yet beautiful effect. As the rhythmic development intensifies he ratchets up the tension in the instruments, floating the vocal lines above them, imploring God’s attention. I wonder what effect the juxtaposition of dance-inspired rhythm and the chorale-style vocal lines would have had on the most devout Lutherans in the congregation?

Next is Siehe, ich Stehe von der Tür und Klopfe an from Cantata No. 61. What a beautiful arioso, clocking in at just over one minute from beginning to end compared to the previous chorus. A simple pizzicato accompaniment and the vocal flourish for the bass soloist on Klopfe clearly signify the knocking – simple yet effective musical painting of the text. Brilliant.

What follows is the first aria with obbligato instrument. In this case violin for Ich traue  seiner Gnaden and tenor soloist. It’s worth saying here that consistently throughout the whole series of cantatas the standard of soloists – instrumental and vocal – is of the highest standard. Here the delicate violin writing gently wraps itself round the – at times – equally florid vocal writing and great emphasis around trust (traue) and grace (Gnaden).

Murre nicht, Lieber Christ (BWV 144) for alto soloist with it’s pulsing string accompaniment, highlighting the murmuring of the text, shows a different approach. Here Bach adds depth to the instrumental writing by doubling up the lead violins with the warm, sonorous tones of an oboe d’amore. The middle section with it’s running bass and ‘sighing’ motifs from the upper strings has an interesting rhythmic gear change just before the returning of the first section. Interesting to note that throughout the cycle  it is incredibly rare to hear any of the soloists ornament their da capo sections. How very different from church music written for their Catholic counterparts!

The bass arioso from BWV 71, Tag und nacht ist dein opens with obbligato flutes and oboes. Bach again sets the scene vividly yet with great economy. The first, almost pastoral  section – literally day and night are yours – immediately brings to mind for me that cantata about ‘sheep safely grazing’. It contrasts with the florid writing for the soloist and change of tempo in the middle section, with particularly fine handling of triplets in the vocal line just before the return to the opening section.

Next yet another wonderful aria, Ach! Ich sehe from Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe which opens with this bass aria. Here Bach uses a trumpet in a very unmartial manner to again add a very distinctive colour to the strings and their gentle lilting perpetual motion. The walking bass gives a real sense of ‘walking’ the the Hochzeit quite literally.

Aha,  A chorale! O Große Gott von treu breaks with the norm with it’s recorder obbligato throughout. Nice.

Du machst, O Tod, Mir nun nicht Ferne bange (BWV 114) with its jaunty oboe solo did throw me with its countertenor soloist. Ably sung but did Bach employ castrati? It’s one I will have to look up! Jury is out on that one.

To end, Verzage nichts, O Haüflein Klein. My first duet and a fitting place to draw a line. For soprano and tenor, it’s dance-like spirit is made even more distinctive by the  appogiatura’d bassoon obbligato which adds a slightly rustic feel. Again Bach uses the simplest of forces to great effect.

Of course I could just keep going. In total there are over one thousand individual tracks in my Bach cantata/Gardiner folder on my iPod but I will stop here for now.

Just from listening to these nine unrelated selections from his cantatas I’m simply in awe of Bach’s brilliance. His is an unending ability and talent to create completely different sound worlds each time using the simplest of means and, at the same time, painting the clearest of pictures and conveying the whole spectrum of devotion and emotion.

And it’s also clear from these performances that Gardiner and his players enjoyed every single moment of their amazing pilgrimage. If only I had been able to be in the audience just once.

A genius performed by brilliant, talented and totally committed singers and players.

Soli Deo Gloria? Too bloody right.

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