Archive for March 6th, 2016|Daily archive page

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Deceptively Simple.

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on March 6, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (BWV 185)
Nur jedem das Seine (BWV 163)
Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132)

Bach composed three more cantatas in 1715 and they continue in the same modest vein as O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad written in June of that year.

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (Compassionate heart of eternal love), first performed in July 1715 (and revised in 1723) opens directly with a lilting duet for soprano and tenor with obbligato trumpet that pre-empts the closing chorale melody. There is something in Bach’s handling of the melodic line, the use of trills – particularly around ewigen Liebe – that if not erotic, comes pretty damn close. Following an recitative/arioso, the aria for alto with oboe obbligato is a beautifully crafted and stately movement and begins to demonstrate Bach’s increasing skill in elongating his melodic line. Another recitative leads into a rather earnest – almost finger-wagging – aria for bass and unison strings and in many ways with a few amendments wouldn’t be out of place on the operatic stage. A chorale ends a cantata, which despite its almost perfunctory nature, contains some beautiful music.

Not until December did Bach compose Nur jedem das Seine (Only to each his own), which although it seems even simpler – almost chamber in style – to the preceding cantata, contains some surprising experimentation by Bach.

The opening aria for tenor, motivic in structure is again almost perfunctory in its nature but the following bass aria – Laß mein Herze gerne geben (Let my heart be the coin) seems sonically richer despite even smaller forces because Bach only employs the lower strings with some energetic writing for the cellos. But it is the recitative that follows that might have had people sitting up in the pews – a recitative for soprano and alto. Or rather an arioso, with a rather ethereal quality which fits the words – Ich woltte dir, o Gott, das Herze gerne geben (I would gladly, O God, give you my heart). Bach might have been a Lutheran by faith, but as early as 1715 he was a dramatist at heart. No onle sitting in the church would have been in any doubt about the sincerity of the text at this point, which leads in to a duet proper where the strings intone a chorale melody below the florid, joyful vocal lines.

The final cantata of the year, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132) was first performed just before Christmas and despite its small forces, has a breadth and joyousness that would have had feet tapping and heads nodding in time to the music.

The opening aria for soprano and oboe obbligato is almost concertante – If not secular – in style with singer and instrumentalist trading florid melodic lines which captures at its heart the message Messias kömmt an! (The Messiah is coming). The recitative for tenor that follows contains some imitative and arioso writing for both soloist and continuo. More finger wagging follows in Wer Bist Du? (Who are you?) for bass with lively continuo writing. A more contemplative mood pervades the recitative Ich will, mein Gott, dir frei heraus bekennen (I would freely confess to you, my God) that emotionally follows neatly from the previous aria. The final aria before the closing chorale is notable once again for a florid instrumental obbligato, this time for violin, which weaves itself around the alto’s vocal line.

Despite the apparent simplicity of these final cantatas of 1715, It’s worth remembering one things. In these years at Weimar, Bach had at his disposal some accomplished instrumentalists and it seems that he recognised that they could be usefully and effectively deployed both in church and chamber.

Not So Polish-ed

In Classical Music, Review on March 6, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Review – Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky & Szymanowski (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5 March 2016)

Symphony No. 3 “Polish” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
Six Maeterlinck Lieder (Alexander von Zemlinsky)
Stabat Mater (Karol Szymanowski)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Soprano)
Andrzej Dobber (Bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A concert in part to celebrate the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was somewhat of a schizophrenic affair.

There is a quasi-correct connection between Tchaikovsky’s mis-named “Polish” Symphony No. 3 and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater commissioned by the rather racy Princesse de Polignac. However I couldn’t find a direct connection with Zemlinsky except the fact that Louise Zemlinsky’s mother died in a concentration camp in Poland. But I think that is a coincidental connection rather than a deliberate one.

Apart from historical schizophrenia, it was also a schizophrenic event in terms of the overall musical performance. As I’ve commented previously, Jurowski can coax magnificent playing from his orchestra but he often shows little sympathy for singers that made for an almost missed opportunity with regards to Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder.

We simply don’t hear Anne Sofie von Otter in London often enough and last time it was in the ill-thought out The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She is an incredible and intelligent performer and she brought the whole of her musical experience and insight into the performance of these six songs. Poor Zemlinsky, he lost out to Mahler in more ways that one both as conductor, composer and lover but these songs are under-rated. Ms von Otter brought each song to life through a clear love and understanding of the texts. Never has Und ich sah den Tod, der ewartetihn auch (and I saw Death waiting for him as well) been so perfectly placed word for word and the opening of the fifth song, Und kerht er einst heim sounded both so wistful and yet full of forlorn hope. And again she drove the text forward to the final tragic words.

Yet while Ms von Otter shared a wealth of experience and a surge of emotion to each song with the audience, Jurowski’s support was almost perfunctory and at times, overwhelmed the singer. Zemlinsky’s orchestration creates a very particular sound world and we only caught occasional glimpses of it.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and his Stabat Mater is not exception. What stood out most from this performance was the quality of the choral singing – impressive, clear and impassioned. The trio of soloists was a mixed bag. At first, I thought that Jurowski might have asked the singers to dispense with vibrato because of the almost Choirboy-ish timbre and delivery of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka. However this was dispelled by Ms von Otter own impassioned delivery of the Polish text. Personally and thinking back to Georgia Jarman, I would have preferred a soprano with more depth and richness for this vocal line. The third soloist. Andrzej Dobber had a resonant if slightly indistinct bass and seemed most subsumed by Jurowski’s conducting.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – erroneously labeled the “Polish” symphony. It always feels like the ‘middle child’ of the composer’s six symphonies (seven if you include Manfred). It follows the creative freshness of the firs two symphonies, and while it teases at the last three in the set, this five movement work always feels more academic experiment than symphony. Personally, anyway.

It was well-performed, with Jurowski revealing much of the inner detail, however it didn’t seem to hang together coherently. But ultimately this has more to do with the symphony itself that the excellent playing of the London Philharmonic and in particularly some of the individual players and in particular the first bassoonist.

I’m not sure that the evening warranted a standing ovation from some parts of the Festival Hall (I think there was some partisanship going on) and I continue to hope that Jurowski will find a more sympathetic approach when he next performs with any singers.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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