Saturday, 20 April 2013

Shepherds throw the best parties- Der Herr is mein getreuer Hirt- Cantata for the second Sunday after Easter

Bach is fed up. He's been denied the resources to do his job properly and is not happy about it. This week's cantata comes from April 1731, well after Bach's astounding rush of creativity of 1724-25 when he was inspired to produce a new cantata every week. Then, he seemed content in his new job as Kantor, the lynchpin of the musical life of Leipzig. Now, it's a different story. The previous August, he wrote a memorandum to his employers complaining that a large chunk of the so-called choristers at St Thomas' School did not “understand music at all and can barely sing a chorale with difficulty”- “so keine music verstehen, sondern nur nothdörfftig einen Choral singen können”. His astounding flow of new weekly cantatas has slowed down to a dribble. Is Bach just bored of getting his boneheaded pupils to sing new masterpieces?

Part of it is that by now, Bach has done a large chunk of the task he set himself- to provide a “well-ordered church music”. He's composed at least two more or less complete cycles of music for the whole church year. There are only a few gaps to be patched. Some of these gaps are due to the weirdness of the liturgical calendar. For example, there are rarely twenty-seven Sundays between Trinity Sunday and Advent, so Bach only got round to writing a cantata for that particular obscure Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Trinity in November 1731. Ironically, that's a stunning masterpiece, and probably the most famous of all cantatas- Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme. So we can't say that Bach was just sick of church music by the early 1730s. But he was certainly spending more time writing secular music for the caffeine addicts at Zimmerman's coffee house than new cantatas for the congregation at St Thomas's.

So this cantata is brief- shorter even than the single alto movement from last week's instalment. But never mind the length, feel the quality! The text is a 1530 metrical translation of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want”. It's the one that everyone has heard at their grandparents' funeral (including mine, for that matter). Nearly every other composer, from Schubert to Howard Goodall (he of the Vicar of Dibley theme tune) sets it gently and pastorally., even Bach himself takes that option in his earlier settings, you can usually smell the fields. Bach goes for a completely different option here- pompous, lordly. Here, the shepherd is just a metaphor; what we hear in the opening chorus is the entry of a Lord equal to any of Bach's patrons.

For me, the first movement exemplifies the baroque courtly aesthetic. It's not easy listening: the orchestral textures are quite complex. The sheer weight of independent musical parts makes it sound dense, like a rich-fruit cake with all sorts of nuts and unexpected sweetmeats beneath the surface. In fact, it took me a couple of goes to get into it. I was overwhelmed by all the colours, especially the horn flourishes over the top.

It didn't help that Masaaki Suzuki's recording with the Bach Collegium Japan really brings out the edgy tuning of the woodwinds here. For once, I thought that Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra was a better guide. His scholarly calmness works for me here, when occasionally it can just sound dull in less colourful music. Nevertheless, we sometimes we need reminding that music from the eighteenth century can still sound plain weird at times! It certainly sounded odd to Bach's contemporaries; this is the sort of music that the generation after Bach rebelled against, and even some of Bach's sons bought into the new Classical simplicity and coolness.

The alto aria that follows has a lovely swing to it. I don't know why writing in time signatures like 6/8 and 12/8 is considered “pastoral”; most sheep and sheepdogs have four legs, not three, and shepherds don't waltz much. But both Handel and Bach slip into lilting compound rhythms when they want to talk about shepherds, whether in Arcadia or Palestine. And here we hear a flowing, bubbling brook of an oboe part as the soloist sings “Zum reinen Wasser er mich weist,  Das mich erquicken tue.” - “he leads me to pure waters that enliven me”.

The bass takes the next verse: he starts with an arioso on the words “Though I walk through the dark valley, I fear no misfortune”; it's not quite a full extended aria, but has some of the declamatory aspects of recitative instead. There's some lovely murky double-bass work on the words “finstern Tal”- dark valley- as the music ventures into all sorts of harmonically unexpected places, but then returns to bright simplicity for “Dein Stab und Stecken trösten mich”- your rod and staff comfort me.

And just as in the psalm, the move from the dark valley to the feat is almost immediate.There's a real bounce to the soprano/tenor duet that follows; each vocal soloist rushes up toward the top of their register in the first few bars; the whole mood fits in with the words “Machst mein Herze unverzagt und frisch- you make my heart undismayed and fresh.”. The whole section has something of the air of a country wedding, with Freuden- joy- ringing out again and again through the dance-rhythms. We end with a chorale made additionally burnished and brassy with the oboes and horns joining together to make a slightly archaic sound-world- but one that's clearly full of joy. The chorus sings“ich werde bleiben allezeit im Haus des Herren eben”- “I shall remain in forever in the house of the Lord”. It's a vigorous, embodied rejoicing in the physical presence of God. Bach's Lord may be a shepherd; but his shepherd is also a Lord, and he throws great parties.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Peace in our time? Am Abend der desselbigen Sabbats- Cantata for the First Sunday after Easter

Love drives out fear. We start this week with an image of frightened people who have voluntarily locked themselves away. The libretto for this week's cantata begins “On the evening of the same Sabbath as the disciples were gathered together and the doors were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst of them”. Yes, the disciples can always be trusted to do the right thing once they've exhausted all the other options, and so their response to the life-changing events of Easter week is to hide and slam the doors shut.

But Bach shows that outside this little fearful group something bigger has happened. He doesn't plunge into the text straight away; rather we have an opening instrumental movement that is full of suppressed excitement. Tension builds up with repeated chugging woodwinds, and the orchestration gets richer and richer as hints of burnished brass gradually penetrate the texture. Then, in the second section, the instrumentation thins out again, to oboe, bassoon and strings alone. There's a wonderfully hummable oboe melody, the sort that a dozen film and television costume drama composers dream of writing. Then, after a harmonic jolt and a few moments in the minor, we return da capo- to the beginning- and we're in the exciting, thrumming world of a mini-Brandenburg concerto again. Masaaki Suzuki in his recording with the Bach Collegium Japan makes the repeat particularly interesting, bringing out greater dynamic contrasts and turning up the intensity a little. So outside the world of the text and the disciples' closed doors, we have a sense of excitement and serene beauty; all they have to do is notice.

Only after Bach has established this mood does the tenor start narrating the story. We're back to minor chords, and a repeated semiquaver movement in the bass that sounds more neurotic than excited. But the mood doesn't last; suddenly, Christ appears and it's as if a penny drops; all fear is replaced by serenity when we move into one of the longest and most gorgeous moments in any cantata. Indeed the alto aria that follows is not only longer than the rest of the cantata put together; it's longer than some of the short winter cantatas entirely. It is a wonderful moment of time stopping; admittedly, it requires superhuman breath control. Just occasionally Robin Blaze in the luxuriant Suzuki recording has to break up a line. By contrast, Daniel Taylor, singing for John Eliot Gardiner, carries straight through without a breath. Gardiner's tempo at twelve and a half minutes is nearly a minute faster than Suzuki's, but still relaxed. At the other extreme is Nicolaus Harnoncourt, who only takes 10 minutes and 43 seconds. He keeps a genuine sense of flow in the orchestra where sometimes Suzuki comes to a near-halt; but I found Paul Esswood's singing style a little choppy at times, and there's little sense of meditation. You pays your money (or your Spotify subscription) and you takes your choice. To my mind, Suzuki's extreme dreaminess fits with the slight unreality of the text. How is it it that Christ is supposed to be present “wo zwei und drei versammlet sind”- where two or three are gathered together? We don't know- he just is. In Bach's reverie a seemly veil is drawn over centuries of slightly fruitless theologizing.

I'm intrigued that Bach gives the longest arias in the cantatas to an alto so often. The alto line probably would have been sung by older teenagers with un-broken voices; indeed, this is still the practice in the choir at Bach's church today. Perhaps these were the stars of the choir school. They would have been the most reliable senior choristers with years of continuous training under their belt, and weren't yet focussing on degrees at the university in Leipzig as the tenors and basses would have been. More realistically, the boy altos wouldn't have been distracted by beer and sex either, as tenors and basses usually are.

After this monumental evocation of a Presence, we're brought down to earth with what I felt was a touch of humour; an almost grotesque continuo line hops around underneath a soprano and tenor duet which reassures the congregation that although persecution may try to destroy them, “es wird nicht lange währen”, “it won't last long”- and on those very words the duet does exactly what it says on the tin, and stops abruptly!

We're left with a little recitative sermon from the bass, and the accompaniment breaks into pugnacious excitement on the words “Drum lasst die Feinde wüten!”- so let the Enemy rage! And the aria that follows is filled with lightning flashes from the virtuosic antiphonal violins, and an amazing run on the word Verfolgung- persecution. The cantata closes with one of Luther's own chorales, a plea for “frieden... zu unsern Zeiten” - “peace in our time”.

Looking back, there are some difficult moments in the text of this cantata. The gospel text unashamedly blames “the Jews” for the disciples' fear. And the second part of the closing chorale (albeit not by Luther himself) asks for blessings on unsern Fürsten und all'r Obrigkeit- our princes and all authority- so that we can live in “godliness and respectability”. Authoritarianism and anti-semitism don't sound good, even when dressed in Bach's sublime music; they are creeds of fear, not love.

But while context can never excuse fully, it can help us understand. So for the blunt references to “the Jews” in John's gospel, it might be noted that that text may well have been written after AD 80, a time when the Christian community were themselves the persecuted minority within Judaism, expelled from the synagogues (and possibly cursed in the Jewish liturgies). The more nuanced view of Judaism we see in the other gospels is gone; Pharisees and Sadducees are replaced in the mind of the traumatised, expelled Christians by one monolithic “the Jews”.

Similarly, the first part of the final chorale for peace stems from the aftermath of the Peasants' War of 1524. Luther was horrified by the forces he had unleashed when he sparked off the Reformation. He subsequently denounced the very peasantry he had inspired to rebellion in his wonderfully named 1525 pamphlet Wider die Mordischen und Reuberischen Rotten der Bawren - Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. In this context, the second part of the chorale, calling for good government and quiet respectability seems perfectly in line with Luther's own terrified thoughts.

Yet it all falls short of the inspired excitement of the introduction and seraphic serenity of the alto aria. Perfect love can indeed drive out fear; but fear can make a good attempt at coming back, and the struggle is at the heart of this cantata

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Make do and mend- Easter Oratorio

It's April 1, 1725- Easter Sunday in Leipzig. Butchers, brewers and purveyors of fleshly temptation give a sigh of relief. At last we're through the austere trudge of Lent! And at St Thomas's Church, Bach meets Easter with music on the grandest scale. In the opening bars he marshals trilling trumpets, horns, kettle-drums and a host of other instruments to make the congregation sit up and listen.

But rather than plunging into an energetic chorus, the music lets us know that something rather different is on the menu from an ordinary cantata. Instead, that sumptuous introduction leads into a more intimate, instrumental “B” section, before returning in all its glory. All the instruments are heard in multiple combinations, bringing out unexpected sonorities; it's a little concerto for the whole orchestra, two hundred years before Bartók. Our attention is grabbed from every direction; musical interest springs at us from the top, bottom and middle of the texture- sometimes it's the jazzy cool bassoons, at other times the oboes and the trumpets get an unexpected little duet . It's always unpredictable, but never wayward. Even the dutiful continuo organ part gets a little moment in the sun (at least in Andrew Parrott's fine recording), when the other instruments take a step back to reveal its lovely little upward scale.

The first movement draws to its close- and surely it's time for the usual mixture of sublime song and slightly hard-to-digest didactic theology? Not at all. We've got a whole slow instrumental movement now. It's a lovely adagio; a simple long-breathed melody played on flute (or oboe) above a stately bass. In fact, the singers only open their mouths once we're well into the third movement and the initial themes return, exultant and brassy.

What is going on? Some people have suggested that this is a whole lost secular concerto that Bach has recycled into a liturgical work- a long-lost, neglected cousin of the Brandenburg Concertos. So is this the musical equivalent of the youngest son of a eighteenth-century family unwillingly being sent into the Church after his cleverer or more aggressive elder brothers managed to grab the family estate, the law and the army?

The question is even more pertinent because we know that this whole piece had already been performed with secular words a month or so previously for the forty-third birthday of one of the local princelings- Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weißenfels. It seems that Bach may have written the music for that gig first, then got his favourite librettist, Picander, to write a new set of words for Easter to more or less the same music. This practice- the technical term is a contrafactum- seems to have a bad reputation, smacking of cheating. That's despite the fact that one earlier great masterpiece, Tallis' Spem in Alium, (beloved of Classic FM ever since it was mentioned in Fifty Shades of Grey) only survived because of a later contrafactum arrangement.

So it might seem that the whole piece is actually a bit of splendidly pragmatic bodging-together of second and third-hand music, cramming words into a second hand cantata which itself had swallowed up a large chunk of a pre-owned concerto. It's not as if many of the good middle-class burghers of Leipzig would have heard the music at Duke Christian's birthday bash the month before. Google Maps helpfully states that to walk the 34.6 kilometres from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to the Schloss Neu Augustusburg, Duke Christian's pad in Weißenfels, would take 7 hours and 8 minutes. Oddly enough, there isn't a “horse and carriage” option on Google Maps; but it's fair to say that on eighteenth-century roads, it still would have taken a fair while.

But I think there's more to it than getting away with it. Bach knew what he was doing in his choice of previous material- the B Minor Mass proves that, which is packed full of carefully selected earlier material, reworked and perfectly suited for the context. So in these first two movements, I'd argue that the Bach is priming and tantalising our emotions wordlessly, sensitising us to the themes of the whole work. It's like the dumb-show in Act 2 of Hamlet: as Ophelia says, “Belike this show imports the argument of the play.” First, we have a rush of exultation; then we have a calmer, cooler atmosphere before a return to excitement.

And this fits perfectly with the message of the words once they start. Firstly, we run: “Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füße” - “come, hurry and run, you speedy feet!”. Almost immediately, we have to deal with a slight infelicity of the hastily re-worked words- we're being summoned to the cave “die Jesum bedeckt” - “which hides Jesus”- but he isn't there any more. It doesn't quite make sense, but the music is so hummable and irresistible that we're swept up in it.

The fourth movement is a genuine dramatic dialogue; each of the soloists, alto, soprano, tenor and bass, enter as as biblical characters: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, Peter and John respectively. (Interestingly, this is a shift from the voice parts in the Passions, where Peter is a bass and the voice of John the evangelist is a tenor). They squabble a little. The men are rather slow on the uptake and prefer to wallow in their grief, cutting across the women's major-key joy with a discordant “Ach!” rather than listening to the message that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. This sort of thing is relatively rare in cantatas- but we see it in the Passions, and the Christmas Oratorio. Perhaps this- along with the complete lack of chorales- is a reason why Bach renamed the 1725 cantata the Oster-Oratorium- Easter Oratorio- on its revival in 1735.

The slightly fraught journey to the tomb leads into an aria for Mary the mother of James, who sings “O Soul, your spices shall no longer be myrrh, but only crowning with a laurel wreath (Lorbeerkranze) will still your anxious longings”. The first part makes perfect sense; the women were going to anoint Jesus's body with myrrh, a bitter funerary ointment which “breathes a life of gathering gloom” if you remember your Christmas carols. Now they don't need it any more as the body is gone, arisen. But what's this about a laurel wreath? Again, it's a sign of slightly flawed writing. The original text for Duke Christian's birthday mentioned triumphant crownings with laurel wreath, and the reference has been carried over in exactly the same place. The classical Roman metaphor of the laurel-crowned victorious general sits a bit uneasily with the biblical narrative, to say the least. But again, the music works so well, with a quality of calm yet growing joy. With another lovely flute obbligato to resonate back with the second movement, it gives me that quality of bittersweetness that I felt was slightly lacking in last week's Palm Sunday cantata.

We return to the dialogue. Peter and John finally get the message with the help of Mary Magdalen spelling it out: Er ist vom Tode auferweckt!” “He is risen from the dead!”. The larger range of instruments in the orchestra allows Bach to give us a whole range of sonorities, including the flowing lower woodwinds which accompany Peter's meditation on the shroud that remains left behind in the tomb. It's almost a self-lullaby; Peter quiets his fears with the thought of that veil, and with that sign of life, we can refresh ourselves when passing through the veil of death. Again, it's that calm eighteenth-century Lutheran embrace of death that sends a few shivers down twenty-first century spines.

And there is very little real drama left in the narrative. After a brief S/A recitative duet, the alto as Mary Magdalen sings a further “searching” aria asking where she might find Jesus. But the text misses the opportunity to show what I find the most touching and radiant moment of the Gospel story: when Mary Magdalen's begs a man she thinks is the gardener what he has done with the body- and He replies “Mary”. Instead, the structure of the oratorio text, with both women certain of Jesus's resurrection from the outset, drains any possibility of exploring Mary Magdalen's grief here. She's already certain that she'll find Jesus somewhere- and so this aria is joyful and lively, but utterly lacking pathos. It's a missed opportunity, but not Bach's fault. Similarly, the bouncy recitative which follows for the bass is simple and authentically exultant, but strangely matter-of-fact. “Wir sind erfreut daß unser Jesus wieder lebt”- we are overjoyed that Jesus lives again. And a brass fanfare ushers in a final chorus, when the bass leads the other singers in calling for “Preis und Dank”- praise and thanks. Lovely oboe flourishes cut across the singers' declamatory block chords , and a brilliant upward sprint from the bassoon and bass leads us into the very last fugue. “Der Löwe von Juda kommt siegend gezogen!”- the Lion of Judah approaches us in triumph!

And, just as we are expecting to see the figure of Jesus himself, the entire work comes to an abrupt halt. Of course, Bach had as much music as he had already written, and the abruptness is for sound practical reasons. But the absence of the central figure makes the drama strangely hollow. It's not great opera- in fact, it felt to me like the sort of courtly masques written for noble conspicuous consumption. The pleasant purling woodwinds, the brief moment of angst immediately resolved in a joyful chorus, the small cast who don't really do a great deal in terms of action but who sing the the most sublime music- it reminds me of Handel's Acis and Galatea, written for the pleasure of the Duke of Chandos a few years previously. There are no chorales to give a voice to the worshipping community, none of the complex interplay between times and perspectives, or even many moments of didactism (which some people might find a relief). Ultimately the spirit is a long way from the feel of the other cantatas. Perhaps that's why Bach renamed it an oratorio; and the music itself needs no such apologies. Bach recycled it again for another secular party, and performed the church version at least three more times until 1749. So all in all, we've got some decent value from the music which started out at the birthday party for a long forgotten German princeling. Happy birthday, Duke Christian; and happy Easter!

Saturday, 30 March 2013

In my end is my beginning – Wie schön leuchtet den Morgenstern, Cantata for the Annunciation and Palm Sunday

Lent has ended; but there's a double puzzle, a magic door to escape the wilderness. This week's cantata for Palm Sunday (March 24, this year) is also a cantata for the Annunciation. At the very moment we're anticipating Easter and expecting to hear about triumphal entries into Jerusalem, we're thrown back beyond Christmas, to the very beginning of the story and Christ's conception. It's a sort of liturgical equivalent of getting the “Go back to Old Kent Road” card when your Monopoly dog is padding up to Park Lane.

The tail-in-mouth quality of this cantata extends to the catalogue number. Last week, we were listening to one of the very last latecomers, the Passions-Pasticcio down at the bottom of the catalogue at BWV1088; but now we're twanged back to the very beginning. This is BWV1, unexpectedly leading the procession of Bach's works like a choirboy who's taken the wrong turning at the installation of a bishop. Why was this piece- not the St Matthew Passion, not the Art of Fugue, not even one of the earliest cantatas- chosen to be first of all by the nineteenth-century scholars who put together the first complete Bach edition? It's not immediately obvious.

The opening chorus combines richness from the horns with a lovely twinkling shimmer from the violins above. “How beautifully the morning star shines!” It's real morning music- enlivening, dancing, light. All that is quite appropriate given that the main Sunday service at St Thomas' started at 7 in the morning, and the early March light would have filtering through the windows. (Admittedly, it's a slightly scratchy shimmer on Nicolaus Harnoncourt's recording, made in 1970-1, still the early days of the period instrument movement).

Traditionally, the Annunciation was (and is) considered to be a feast of Mary. Her consent to the angel Gabriel's crashing into her life can be presented as as a glorious prefiguring of an enthronement in heaven (as in Simone Martini's Annunciation with Two Saints here:)

Or it can be something more disturbing, as Dante Gabriel Rosetti's pallid girl hunches up on her bed away from the strange unfocussed presence in her room, contemplating her new condition with a terrifying intensity:

But here, Bach and his librettist are focussed not on Mary but Jesus- appropriately Lutheran. The second movement deals with Mary's role in a few brief lines of recitative delivered by the tenor. Even then, the musical climax is given to the words “O Süßigkeit, o Himmelsbrot, das weder Grab, Gefahr, noch Tod aus unsern Herzen reißen”- O sweetness, O bread of Heaven, that neither grave, danger nor death can tear from our hearts”.This is an ex-Marian festival, a hangover from pre-Reformation times. For Bach's congregation in Leipzig, the real business is adoring the King who is simultaneously entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and a whole new world at the Annunciation.

The festive, courtly feel continues with the next aria for soprano and oboe da caccia- literally a hunting oboe, with a darker tone one step closer to a horn than a conventional oboe (or even the lovely oboe d'amore Bach sometimes uses in his more tender moments). The soloist calls on the himmlische göttlichen Flammen, “heavenly divine flames” to fill the hearts of the believers with brünstigsten Liebe – “burning love”: and the oboe gently chuckles away like a flame starting to kindle in a bundle of twigs.

 Intriguingly, the bass recitative that follows almost seems to be shying away from directly engaging with the concepts of the Annunciation. It talks about “Ein Freudenschein ist mir von Gott entstanden,”- “a beam of joy comes to me from God”, with a joyful little decoration on the word Freudenschein; but it's talking more generally about the experience of holy communion available to all of Bach's congregation, not Mary's very specific experience of bodily union. Is it just Lutheran anti-Marianism? Possibly Or is it actually that Bach and his librettist wanted to express how that feeling of bodily union experienced by Mary at the beginning of the story is available to the whole congregation in Easter week? Either way, the libretto is expressed in ardent, yet relatively theologically unchallenging terms- at least compared to the blackness and calls to repentance we've heard earlier in Lent.

This theme of uncomplicated devotion continues in the next aria. The words are a simple statement of what's going on: “Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten sollen dir, für und für, Dank und Opfer zubereiten” - “Our voices and the sound of strings shall forever prepare thanks and offerings”. Well, yes- and naturally the upper strings play their part in this lightly scored, easy-to-listen-to aria. It does exactly what it says on the tin (or the libretto)- strings, voice, thanks, praise. And we end with joy again as the whole band unites in a straightforward setting of the chorale. It's like a little Christmas, made all the more festive by putting the horns on the top two parts, in unison with the sopranos and altos.

You might get the impression that I'm a little underwhelmed by this cantata. It certainly doesn't go into the full rich implications of Palm Sunday and the Annunciation combined. The libretto doesn't bring out the bittersweetness of Palm Sunday, where a triumphal entry is hung about with shadows of Christ's impending death; and the music is in a mode of almost unalloyed celebration. Similarly, it seems strangely reticent to dramatise the Annunciation in personal terms- could there not have been a dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary here, to match the drama of the Christmas Oratorio? But we are so spoilt. It's still one of the most straightforwardly beautiful cantatas in itself and on its own terms.

That's perhaps the true significance of the cantata and why it justifies its place as BWV 1. Apparently, back in the 1850s the compilers of the catalogue wanted something that would grab people, excite them and purchase subscriptions to the rest of the great sequence. And to hear it more through their ears, we can put aside the historically informed recording by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and go to an earlier, more nineteenth-century-style Romantic reading. In fact, Karl Richter's recording only dates from 1968, two years beforehand. But it comes as the summation of a great tradition of Bach cantatas, just as Harnoncourt represents a new way of looking at things. Once again, an ending and a beginning are entwined; a triumphant conclusion and a new birth are formed into one..

I was electrified by Richter's opening chorus. It works perfectly with a large Romantic orchestra. The larger body of string sound shimmers delicately, and the simpler melodic lines are suited to the massive chorus. And this is the sort of chorus that might have sung Bach cantatas in the 1850s. It shows that in fact, whatever gems came later in the catalogue, Wie schön leuchtet den Morgenstern was a perfect lure. The punters who had never heard a live Bach cantata were expecting contrapuntal complexity and scary Baroque obscurity. Instead, they got a shining morning star, a herald of even greater things.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Shadows of Passion- Bach, Telemann, Altnickol and Graun's "Passions-Pasticcio".

Not there yet- not quite, anyway. In the next instalment we return to the world of weekly sublimity, the ordinary round of cantatas that make up possibly the greatest sequence of choral music ever written. But we're still journeying towards that Jerusalem via some of the Lenten byways and odd little paths. Yes, the last Sunday in Lent before Palm Sunday is called Passion Sunday. But it's only an anticipation- a foreshadowing of the real day of the Passion. So it seems strangely appropriate to listen to a shadow of a Bach Passion- a few brief hints of the greatness of what will come over the next week or so.

The Passions-Pasticcio was only admitted to the canon of genuine Bach recently. Its catalogue number, BWV 1088, puts it right at the back of the queue, along with the fragments and the lost dusty jewels that have been dug out in the last fifty-odd years. To be precise, only a few parts of it are actually Bach. The rest is a jumble together of works by others. In that respect, it's not a pastiche in the sense of composition in someone else's style, as in Grieg's neo-Baroque Holberg Suite, for example. All the parts speak authentically with the voice of their composers, who range from the great (Telemann) to the ought-to-be-better-known (Carl Heinrich Graun) to the probably-best-left-alone (Johann Christoph Altnickol, Bach's copyist and son-in-law). And even one of the parts that is probably by Bach is actually based on a motet by his predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau. Clear? Good. I'm not even going to get into the fraught debates over whether Bach himself glued the whole collage together, or Altnickol, or Uncle Tom Cobbley. Let's just listen to it.

Usually, I'm spoilt for choice with recordings of Bach cantatas. On Spotify, there are at least five more-or-less complete cycles are available, directed by Gardiner, Rilling, Leusink, Harnoncourt, and Koopman. And there are big chunks of the complete cycle in Karl Richter's big and chunky modern-instrument performances for those who like that sort of thing; moreover, to my joy, Masaaki Suzuki has just finished his stylish and beautiful complete set with the Bach Collegium Japan. And then add to that all the one-off cantata recordings made over the last ninety-odd years- for the greatest (and cheapest to produce) like Ich habe genug, there are dozens! Here, there's just one.

But it's not as if the piece deserves neglect. The very first chorus is by Telemann, the man the Leipzig councillors really wanted. And he sweeps us up in a barrage of repeated questions from the chorus: “Wer is der, so von Edom kommt? Wer? Wer?” “Who is this that comes from Edom? Who?” It's a good question, as the reference is rather obscure. They're quoting from the prophet Isaiah, describing the strange and disturbing figure of the Suffering Servant, part victorious, part wounded. His garments are stained red. Is it with blood? Or with the joyful grape juice from the new wine-pressings?

It's all we'd expect from Telemann: vigorous, exciting- and not quite on Bach's level of emotional depth.. A bass soloist takes on the role of the Jesus-figure, confidently declaiming that Ich trete die Kelter allein, und ist niemand unter den Völkern mit mir.” - “I have trodden out the wine-press alone, and there is no-one from the people with me”. None of the complex anguish of the choruses of the St Matthew or St John Passions here. This is a heroic figure, stamping down the road to the crucifixion. Musically, there's less sense of sheer melodic beauty than one might find in Bach. It feels to me as if the chorus are a vehicle for getting through the words, with the orchestra as the main source of musical interest. That vigour persists in the next big chorus, “Fuerwahr, er trug unser Krankheit”. Handel more famously set the same words in English in the Messiah asSurely he has borne our griefs”, and there's the same stabbing, insistent quality here. I found it quite compelling.

But this sense of drive isn't sustained. The Telemann material stops; a fine little recitative is followed by a pleasant but uninspired soprano aria, which totally fails to live up to the words “Ihr Tropfen, fallt auf meine Brust”- “tears, fall on my breast”. There's a sort of second-rate eighteenth-century rhetoric that confuses crying with saying “I weep” repeatedly, without any underlying emotion. It's all light, happy, and requires little attention; if there were lifts in the 1730s, this would be the music they would play.

And this feeling of attractive but insubstantial music continues until the beginning of the second half. Some of it aspires to opera- for instance, the aria Nimmst du der Kron der Dornen? (“Do you take the crown of thorns?”) has a little of the spirit of one of those Mozart moments where a Very Annoyed Soprano socks it to a rather shocked baritone. But at the start of Part 2 we're confronted with far more complex cross-rhythms in the chorus, a richer orchestral sound with much more independent movement inside it, and overall, a less superficial, more emotionally intense experience. Bach has arrived.

This opening chorus of Part 2, the first actual, real-live echt-Bach in the piece, is an accompanied chorale fantasia of the sort familiar from a dozen previous cantatas. It's a cousin of the great closing chorus of Part 1 of the St Matthew Passion, O Mensch Bewein. And it's followed by an accompanied recitative for the bass, underpinned by a beautiful pair of bassoons (No sniggering). It's one of my hobby-horses: baroque bassoons are amazing, stylish instruments, with a suave, almost jazz-saxophone-like sound. Their modern counterparts are more penetrating, more reliable to play and more practical in a large orchestra- but they've swapped their original laid-back cool for a grumpy curmudgeonliness. So Prokofiev uses that modern sound to symbolise the gruff old grandfather in his Peter and the Wolf. But here, Bach uses that older, smooth-sounding bassoon to its fullness. Their lovely falling phrases lull us into peace, as the bass sings words of rest and comfort: “Meine Ruhe find ich hier...”- “I find my rest here”. And for a moment we're in the dreamy world of Ich habe genug, or the end of the St Matthew Passion when the bass sings Mache dir, mein Seele rein- “purify yourself, my soul” and the listeners are swept away into sleepy, cloudy musical heaven.

It doesn't last, unfortunately. After about 6 or 7 minutes of Bach we're back in the hands of lesser men. But, as the famously cloth-eared Leipzig councillor said when grudgingly giving Bach the job in the first place, if you can't get the best, you have to put up with mediocrity. There are certainly some moments of interest in the remainder of the piece. I particularly liked no. 32, the tenor“Mich entseelt ein banger Schrecken”, with an obbligato that made me sit up from one of those jazz-sax Baroque bassoons.

And Hermann Max's recording generally does a good job with this uneven material. There's stylish orchestral playing from Das Kleine Konzert that brings out the intensity of the repeated chords, and attractive chorus work from the Rheinische Kantorei. I got the feeling that Max selected his soloist more for the sheer beauty of their sound than their technical adeptness. His tenor soloist, Markus Brutscher, has a sweet, transparent voice in the serene recitatives- but the fast beating vibrato at moments of emotional tension wasn't quite to my taste. Similarly, his soprano soloist, Martina Lins, has a clear, light and pleasing instrument. But I felt that sometimes she sacrifices strict pitch accuracy for expression. At one point, when she's singing vigorous downward figurations to the words “Macht und Pracht” in number 37 towards the end of the piece, the melody almost slips down the stairs and falls in a heap at the bottom. I found the countertenor, Ralf Popken, unfailingly pleasant to listen to- always a good start with countertenors- and he sensitively phrases the less earth-shattering moments in the score to make some real music out of them.

Meanwhile, the bass soloist, Hans-George Wimmer makes a beautiful job of the parts that are actually Bach- and does his best with the lumpen aria “Nun darf ich nicht mehr entsetzen”. Yes, it's supposed to be portraying confidence and lack of fear. But it's the sort of thumpy, over-bucolic music that Bach took the mickey out of mercilessly in his cantata The Strife of Phoebus and Pan, setting up sublime Apollonian beauty against the bouncy “hup, hup, hup”style his critics preferred.

There's just one further moment in the recording that's worthy of real note- it's Bachian, rather than strictly Bach. Just before the end, there's an adaptation of an earlier motet by Johann Kuhnau, with additional instrumental parts that it's just possible that Bach himself may have written. The darker emotional colours come back, the instrumental parts become freer, as the bass part dances in a sarabande. It's more inward, less superficial, more Bach. The pseudo-Passion ends with a return to the simpler word of simple melody-led homophony, repetition. This is probably what Bach's congregations were listening out for, and apparently were satisfied by. But what they got in other years was one of the greatest masterpieces humanity and divinity have ever created. For that, we'll wait for Good Friday.

(PS. A note of apology for this extended piece. I realise it's now actually Palm Sunday, not Passion Sunday- and I'm a week behind schedule. I hope to get through Palm Sunday's music over the next day or two, and then the big stuff really starts...)

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Deep trouble- Aus der Tiefe rufe ich – Cantata for a time of Penitence.

We're still in the Lenten desert, a series of cantata-less weeks when Bach's major cantata cycles temporarily dry up. Luckily, there are some orphaned week-less cantatas too, written for unknown events and with no obvious place in the calendar. This one is special; written around 1707-8 when Bach was barely twenty-two years old in his brief nine-month stay as organist of the church of St Blaise in Muhlhausen. Some people suggest it was written for a penitential service after a devastating church fire.

It's also one of the first cantatas Bach ever wrote- and a fascinating contrast to the later Leipzig cycles. All generalisations about Bach's music are to some extent wrong (apart from “it's all good”); but I'll risk it. In the later cantatas I've heard, I feel the structure is often driven by an emotional and didactic journey. They're like sermons; they lead the listener through. Earlier movements set out the spiritual problem; later ones show the resolution. And this emotional journey means you can't go back to where you've gone before. Once you've experienced the spiritual warfare of the sixth day of the Christmas Oratorio, it makes no sense to return to the unalloyed rejoicing of the first day- at least not for another twelve months!

But this cantata is different. Here, the form is far more architectural than didactic. Its five movements are carefully balanced as a Renaissance altarpiece; they don't contradict each other or seek to juxtapose emotions. Instead, they are much more homogenous. Indeed, in the score they run straight on from one another without a break- a complete contrast to the later cantatas, where a moment of silence allows the emotional effect of each movement to blossom in the listener. Here, the movements can be appreciated simultaneously and as a whole.

Balance, proportion, saintly adoration- and some hideous scary monsters.

What does this actually mean? Well, from the very beginning Bach chooses not to take the opportunities for vivid word-painting that he might have done later. When the text opens with “Aus der tiefe rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” – “Out of the deep I call to you, O Lord” – you might expect a sepulchrally deep bass entry, rising to an impassioned climax. That's what composers from Thomas Morley in the sixteenth century to John Rutter in the twentieth have done when setting these familiar words from Psalm 130. But here Bach is playing a different game: less emotionally heart-on-sleeve, more formally balanced; less rhetorically direct, more abstractly beautiful. The chorus enters in the middle of their register, not growling away in the depths; and as far as I can tell, the falling pattern of notes on the words Aus der Tiefe doesn't signify anything- it just is, in the same way as the opening of a Beethoven sonata or the West front of St Paul's Cathedral just is.

That's not to say that there's no word-painting at all. When each part comes to the words rufe ich – I call – the singers are given a long note to crescendo on. The call cuts through the texture like a fervent prayer. Similarly, the vowel in the word flehens – weeping – is extended over a falling pattern, almost like a sob. But there are no extremes of register, no ground-shaking bass lines. It's a cooler, more detached sound-world: one that reminds me of sixteenth-century Renaissance polyphony more than of Bach's immediate Baroque contemporaries.

And so we run from the opening chorus straight into a duet for bass and soprano. Bach gives the words of the psalm to the bass, but sets it against words from a sixteenth-century chorale sung by the soprano. Two musical genres are fused together- the archaic sounding hymn melody and the right-up-to-date freer arioso style. It's a trick we've often heard; but this must have been one of the very first times Bach, the master-smith, made an alloy of the old and the new like this. (And yet I can't help hearing in the repeated notes of the “modern” bass part an echo of the oldest musical style of all: plainchant psalm-tones. Maybe I've just been spending too much time with monks.).

And at the moment the soprano part reaches the word Holz- “Wood”, that is, the wood of the cross- at the highest point of their melody, the character of the bass line changes. It rises in its register as the soprano line starts to fall; and the words change. In the first part of this movement, the bass was singing words of fear: “So du willst, Herr, Sünde zurechnen, Herr, wer wird bestehen ?” - “If you, O Lord, were to count up sins, who could withstand it?”. After the intervention of the crucial Holz from the higher voices, this changes to words of comfort: “Denn bei dir ist die Vergebung, daß man dich fürchte.” - “for with you is forgiveness, that we may fear you”. This line gave me a jolt. It seems strange to describe this as reassuring- why would fear be a good thing? But we need to step back to a more princely age to get inside the meaning of this line. It's a different sort of fear from fear of punishment. Rather the author of the psalm, and Bach too, are talking about an established relationship. The psalmist fears God in the same way as a subject (either in Bronze Age Israel or eighteenth century Germany) might fear his prince: a recognition of allegiance to one's superiors which is far superior to a fear of arbitrary punishment- a sort of fear without fear, as it were.

And we've reached the very centre of this carefully balanced five-part structure. If the external movements were like the extended side panels of an altarpiece, and the duet movement we've just heard was a more intimate depiction of a few selected characters, here we reach the central panel. The third movement is a setting of just one line from the psalm: “Ich harre des Herrn, meine Seele harret, und ich hoffe auf sein Wort.”- “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits; and I hope in his word”. The word harre- wait- is gloriously extended in descending scales, while the word hoffe- hope- is repeated underneath it. Waiting is supported and revitalised by hoping- both in real life and in the music.

And the fourth movement is the precise parallel to the second; another duet between an old-fashioned chorale, this time in the alto, and a dancing aria for the tenor who sings the words of the psalm. Again, the two text sources elucidate each other; the tenor sings that his soul waits for the Lord, the alto gives us a picture of the troubled sinner “Den sein Gewissen naget”, “who is gnawed by his conscience”. Who are they? The alto tells us- two Old Testament kings, “David und Manasseh”. The former was a sinner because he couldn't keep his hands off someone else's wife and sent her husband into the front line of battle to keep him terminally busy, The latter was an apostate, and far worse in the eyes of the grumpy Old Testament prophets. But their importance isn't just that they were sinners- they both were forgiven.

Finally we reach the last panel. Just like the beginning, we're back in a more expansive sound-world, with all the singers declaiming “Israel! Israel! Hoffe auf den Herrn” (Israel! Hope in the Lord!) and a dancing middle section. But while the first panel was all about our action, sending prayers “upwards” as it were, this fifth section is about what we receive. The arc is completed; the repeated word that comes through here is Erlösung- redemption. The cantata closes with a stately final cadence. No wild joy with trumpets and drums; this is a sober, intense meditation. It may not have been written explicitly for Lent; but this homeless cantata finds an appropriate place here as the austere weeks before Easter roll on. And when someone asks what you're giving up for Lent, you can say “Rhetorical excess in eighteenth-century church cantatas”.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Sodom's Apples and Devils in Music- Widerstehe doch der Sünde- Cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent

Lent continues, and Bach's cantata-workshop is still firmly shut up. Or is it? We do have one cantata that was possibly written for this Sunday. It's a little solo chamber work, short but intensely beautiful. The words for Widerstehe doch der Sünde were published in 1711 by Bach's librettist Georg Christian Lehms as being appropriate for the Third Sunday in Lent. But there's controversy over whether Bach actually might have saved it for the seventh sunday after Trinity. I'm going to claim it as a Lenten cantata. As Alan Bennett replied when asked about his sexual orientation, you don't ask a man crawling across the Sahara whether he prefers Perrier or Malvern water.

The opening is unsettling- a quick discord, followed by repeated stabs from the strings. Masaaki Suzuki's recording sets off at a fast lick, with a lithe, tense sound; John Eliot Gardiner's version is more insistent- more unnerving prodding than stabbing; it's less immediately exciting, but the more measured pace allows us to hear all the subtle little melodic turns from the lower strings. Suzuki's countertenor soloist, Yoshikazu Mera, has a honey-sweet voice where all the registers are perfectly integrated. No gear-changes into baritone voice here (of the sort that even the sublime Andreas Scholl occasionally indulges in). He calls us urgently; “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”- “Even so, stand up to sin!” As far as I can tell, doch has about a hundred meanings in German- but a crucial aspect of it is a quality of contradiction to what has gone before. And it makes perfect sense by the third Sunday of Lent: despite all the failures, the disappointments, the fallings-away- still keep plodding on, in the face of all temptations.

Sometimes Bach plays a really unexpected trick; here, on the words “ein Fluch der todlich ist”- “a curse that is deadly” he slips a tritone into the harmony. That most dissonant of intervals, the augmented fourth, breaks all the rules of classical harmony- the mediaeval theorists called it the diabolus in musica, the devil in music. And Bach does it twice, on exactly the same words: firstly with an F sharp clashing against a C natural:

(Movement 1, Bars 44-45)

And shortly afterwards, with an F natural- B natural clash. (You can imagine the horns and tail yourself in this one).

(Movement 1, bar 51)

And after those harmonic lurches, those repeated stabs or prods just keep coming back from an unexpected key- yet the singer has to keep going with his own melody. It couldn't be more appropriate for Lent. For me, Lent consists of excessive pride about being able to avoid the familiar temptations... and falling headlong for the exciting new unexpected ones.

But this cantata isn't a fist-waving denunciation of fallen humanity. The second movement is deeply sympathetic; it's a sort of Trading Standards lament for the people who have bought into the temptations of the world. “Von außen ist sie Gold; doch, will man weiter gehn,
so zeigt sich nur ein leerer Schatten und übertünchtes Grab.”
“From the outside it is gold; but if you go further, it shows itself to be only an empty shadow and a whitewashed tomb”. The librettist even compares the tempting sins of the world to Sodomsäpfeln- the apples of Sodom! These are slightly less exciting than they sound. “Sodom's Apples” refers to Calotropis procera. This looks bright green and inviting on the outside, but the fruit itself is disappointingly hollow, containing nothing but dust and a few shards of silk. Worse, the plant's flesh is actually packed full of very unpleasant heart-stopping digitalis poison. has everything you might want to know about this fruit, which seems designed to be a good sermon-metaphor, but not much use for anything else.

But we must go back to the cantata- we only have one movement left. John Eliot Gardiner's version catches fire here. Previously, it had been muted, measured, with only low tones on the organ accompanying the second movement. It works because of the extraordinary dark voice of his soloist, Natalie Stutzmann, who keeps the remarkable sense of intensity. She's a real alto, rather than a mezzo-soprano- the two voice-types aren't that different in absolute range, but an alto will have a lower centre of gravity to her voice. Suddenly at the end of the gorgeous quiet recit, there's a flourish, and we're rushed into the last movement.

Here, we see the strange duality of this cantata's attitude to sin- an apparently firm condemnation from the beginning: “Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel”- Who commits sin is from the Devil”. The word Teufel has a glorious flourish on it; Stutzmann and Gardiner make it sound terrifying (Mera and Suzuki make it sound merely exciting; Scholl and Koopman unfortunately make it sound like an exercise in careful fingering). Yet the whole cantata ends with confidence; “if you stand with confidence against its despicable mobs, sin has already fled away”. And we notice with surprise that the final fugue has itself come to an end on the word “davongemacht”- fled away. Bach's word-painting extends into the whole structure of the piece- just when we thought things were going to be difficult, complex and hard to listen to, it turns out that everthing is already over much more simply than we expected. And the whole cantata flies away like a puff of powder from one of Sodom's empty apples.