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We shall continue this evening with something we began last weekend. We celebrated the anniversary of the birthday of the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach this past March 21st, and while I often like to combine my observances of Bach’s birthday and Easter, such a thing is especially easy to do this year as the two occasions fall quite close together. Bach wrote a number of pieces for the celebration of Easter in the Lutheran liturgical calendar, and some of these pieces rank among his most brilliant masterpieces. We’re going to hear one such piece this evening, his St. Matthew’s Passion. St. Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday, April 11, 1727. He revised and performed it again in 1736, and then again in 1742. It received further revision between 1733 and 1746, during a late-life period during which Bach was making revisions to his major works. This work was also a major part of the renaissance in the public awareness of Bach’s catalog, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted a revised version of the work in Berlin in 1829. It has since become a part of the Easter Week tradition in many churches around the world, and in some instances the work has been staged, usually with performers wearing street clothes, singing their parts from memory. A notable production was staged by Peter Sellars in 2010.
Tonight’s recording is a lovely rendition by the Bach Collegium Japan. The soloists are Nancy Argenta, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, Makoto Sakurada, Peter Kooij, Chiyuki Urano. The recording March 1999 at Kobe Shoin University, Japan. The ensemble is directed by Masaaki Suzuki
This week, we continue our celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach by starting with another landmark recording. Wanda Landowska was a true musical pioneer, a musicologist whose work helped revolutionize what we now might call the “period instruments trend”. Like many of the great musicologists, she was a critical writer whose opinions went in direct contrast with popular opinion of the day. She had some rather interesting things to say:
We very rarely hear the genuine music of the Leipzig Cantor. We are compelled to listen to modernized Bach, arranged according to the musical fashions of today, approximated to the conditions of our time. We are within two centuries of Bach, nevertheless his epoch is ancient history vague and totally distinct from that in which we live, different in life, art, impressions and ideas. What we seek eagerly, what we like and what we admire, often did not find favor in those days.
Intensity of expression and breadth of sonority are the qualities now most sought after, most admired in every musical performance. Nevertheless these ideals of contemporary art were not in high favor two centuries ago. In prefaces to their works or in treatises on playing the harpsichord, the authors recommend above all, grace, finesse and precision. “Experience has taught me,” says Francois Couperin, “that the hands which are the strongest and capable of playing the most rapid passages are not those which succeed best in expressing tender sentiment.” (This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine (September 1906): 562-3. The quote was found at Polish Music Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2003)
Her life was just about as interesting as her work. She was an innovator in the construction of new harpsichords, and she had works written especially for her by Francois Poulenc and Manuel de Falla. She established the École de Musique Ancienne in Paris in 1925, and her home in St. Leu became a center for the study and performance of old music. However, when the Nazis invaded France, Landowska (who was Jewish) had to flee France with her assistant and companion Denise Restout, leaving behind all her harpsichords and manuscripts (which were subsequently stolen). She resettled in Connecticut, and was able to continue her work until her death in 1959. It is largely thanks to Ms. Restout that her many writings have been translated and archived, and thus preserved for future generations.
As is natural when considering her interest in harpsichords, she had a special interest in the work of the great Baroque masters like Bach. Her 1931 recording of the Goldberg Variations was the first ever attempt at recording that important keyboard masterpiece. It is that recording that we hear tonight, as archived from the original 78 rpm recordings. I find the sound quality to be quite spectacular, given that it was made in 1931. All in all, a worthy musical experience.
After the Goldberg Variations, we then heard the sole Passacaglia that Bach wrote. It is not known exactly when Bach wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, a situation that we have with many of Bach’s early works where the original manuscript is lost, a group which includes many of his organ works. It is believed that the piece was written between 1706 and 1713. As with all passacaglias, the work centers around a theme (possibly borrowed from André Raison – the similarities are explored in the figure at right), which is stated with the bass pedals at the opening, at a length of 8 bars. After the statement of the initial theme, the work explores a number of variations on the initial theme, 20 variations in all. After the conclusion of the variations, the work immediately, without the usual pause, steps into a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects), again with the same initial melody serving as the starting point, but one can immediately tell where Bach swerves away from the original melody into new heights of organic bliss. At one point the work becomes a permutation fugue. The work was quite influential, with Robert Schumann describing it as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.” Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording by Peter Hurford.
After the passacaglia, we then heard the Musical Offering, BWV 1079. The work was the result of a visit Bach paid to Frederick II, then King of Prussia. During the visit, the king gave Bach a short theme, which Bach improvised into a three-voice fugue on the spot. He also attempted to improvise a six voice fugue. After this, Bach promised to set the fugue to paper and have it engraved in copper. When Bach did this, he added to the royal theme (the “thema regium”) two ricercaris, ten canons, and a trio sonata in four movements. One of the interesting points to the piece is that this is perhaps the only piece written by Bach for a new invention that the king was showing off, the piano (in its early form, the piano-forte). The piece is also interesting in that it is written for a quartet combo of violin (changing over to viola from time to time), flute, viola da gamba, and keyboard, with the keyboardist from time to time switching from harpsichord to the new piano-forte. Tonight’s recording is a 1999 edition by the combo of Gottfried von der Goltz (violin and viola), Karl Kaiser (flute), Ekkehard Weber (viola da gamba) and Michael Behringer (harpsichord and fortepiano).
We concluded the evening with a fragmentary cantata, Bach’s Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV50. It is believed to be part of a larger cantata that was written for a special occasion, possibly Michaelmas. The composition is unusual for Bach in that the instrumentation calls for two choirs and a large orchestra, and some scholars have suggested that Bach may in fact no have been the author (the suggestion has been quite controversial). Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording by Andrew Parrott, leading the Taverner Consort and Players.
- Wanda Landowska – A 1996 article that focuses on the reminiscences of Denise Restout, who was still living and teaching in Connecticut at the time (she passed away in 2004)
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Poncho Sanchez and Terance Blanchard, “Siboney” from Chano y Dizzy (Concord Picante, 2011). The modern conguero and trumpeter channel the classic pair.
Kenny Garret, “Seeds from the Underground” from the 2012 album of the same name. Ends with quote from “Work Song” …
Cannonball Adderley Quartent, “Work Song” from 1962 TV show Jazz Scene USA.
Chico Hamilton, “A Trip” from The Dealer (1966). The west coast drummer leading a group that introduced Larry Coryell on guitar. The song was a between-songs improve that the engineer caught on tape.
Art Pepper, “Jazz Me Blues” from Meets the Rhythm Section (1957). Pepper, out of prison after a sentence for nartcotics, records a great session on a borrowed alto sax with Miles Davis’ rhythm section of Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, and Red Garland on piano.
McCoy Tyner, “Fly with the Wind” and “Salvadore de Samba” from the 1976 Milestone LP Fly Like the Wind. Tyner’s huge piano sound backed by a full orchestra. Soaring jazz.
Sun Ra, “Kingdom of Not” from Supersonic Jazz (1957). The Arkestra recorded, not on Jupiter as claimed, but at the RCA studios in Chicago.
James Carter, “Blue Creek” from Conversin’ with the Elders (1996). The tenor saxophonist with “elder” Buddy Tate on clarinet. Love clarinet on a slow, swampy blues.
Jimmy Giuffre 3, “Jesus Maria” from Fusion (1962). The leader’s clarinet with piano and bass. Very hip in 1962, and still sounds fresh today. Classy.
Miles Davis, “Fat Time” from Man with the Horn (1981). OK, some “real” fusion to close the set.
Our show this evening has a dual-fold purpose. We have Easter coming in two weeks, and this year the timing coincides with the occasion of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday. I celebrate both occasions on a yearly basis, given the importance of Bach to the development of musical theory and technique in the Western Hemisphere. This actually works out pretty well for us, in that Bach wrote a number of pieces for use during the Easter holiday season, and several of these pieces rank among some of the great historical examples of classical music. So, to me, to spend a few weeks observing the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach does not feel like a limitation, it feels like an opportunity.
So we’ll begin our Easter celebration with St. John’s Passion, BWV 245. The piece was first written in 1724 for that year’s Good Friday Vespers service Bach made several revisions to the work, including a 1749 revision done as part of his notable late-life revision project wherein he made revisions to what he considered to be his key works, with an eye towards his legacy. This revision largely returned the work to its 1724 form, with some alterations in orchestration to replace instruments that had largely passed from use (i.e. the viola da gamba). The Johannes-Passion is the oldest of Bach’s 3 known Passion works; a St. Mark’s Passion was written in 1731 but has been lost, with a surviving libretto having been destroyed in the WWII bombing of Dresden. In addition to the well-known St. Matthew’s Passion, there is also a St. Luke’s Passion that is not believed to be Bach’s, but which may contain some contributions from him.
Tonight’s performance is a 1993 performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, with Angela Maria Blasi, Marjana Lipovsek, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, and Anton Scharinger. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Schoenberg Choir.
When one is looking for Easter music, Bach certainly gives us a number of compelling options, especially his great Passion works. But he did not limit himself to the Passion works. Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und laufet – “Come, hasten and run”), BWV 249, was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725 (the year following his St. John’s Passion). Its composition is a substantial departure from the form taken by his numerous cantatas (among other areas, it is notably longer than most of his cantatas – most of his cantatas run between 24 and 30 minutes, whereas the Easter Oratorio runs in the 40-45 minute range), and in parts is a parody (in other words, a recycle) of a secular cantata that Bach had written a few months earlier. But Bach’s practice of recycling music was not just a cut and paste job – in many instances, music was rearranged to fit the libretto, instrumentation changed, parts added or removed. Like the aforementioned Passions, the Easter Oratorio also received several revisions, once in 1735 (when it was given the title of “Oratorio”) and another in the 1740s.
Tonight’s recording is a rather striking rendition by the Bach Collegium Japan from 2005, directed by Masaaki Suzuki. Soloists were Yukari Nonoshita (soprano), Patrick van Goethem (counter-tenor), Jan Kobow (tenor), and Chiyuki Urano (bass).
Our last selection of the evening is Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4. It is believed to have been written in 1707, when Bach was 22, and may have been related to his move from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen, possibly being used for his application for the position of church organist. The chorale portion is based on a hymn of the same name by Martin Luther, which was in turn based on an Easter hymn from the 12th century, Christ ist erstanden (“Christ is risen”). There are compositional similarities to a work by Johann Pachelbel, which is not surprising given Bach’s young age, Pachelbel’s known influence on Bach (he was a friend of Bach’s family), and the common practice of quoting other composers. Original copies of the cantata do not survive, but there exists a copy that Bach made for a 1725 performance. The piece has been recorded many times by many orchestras with many conductors. Tonight’s recording is a 2003 recording by the Hilliard Ensemble with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Poppen.
Once again, we embark on my annual musical odyssey that is the celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. As I’ve done this every year since shortly after I began broadcasting, and since I’ve written multiple blog entries that explore the wonders of his music, it is hard for me to write much without becoming repetitive. Yet this music is so glorious that it begs for at least some form of mention.
This week’s show begins with a work that I often feature as a part of these birthday celebration, his Kunst der Fugue, or Art of Fugue, BWV 1080. He began the work at some point during the early 1740s, and assembled an fair copy manuscript in 1742 that had 11 fugues and 2 canons. Another assembly of the work was produced in 1745, often referred to as the Berlin Autograph, which contained 12 fugues and 2 canons. As Bach was engaged in a process of revising a number of what he likely considered his key works (including the two Well-Tempered Clavier sets, the two surviving Passion works, and his B Minor Mass, among others), he also began a revision of Art of Fugue. All indications are that this revision was largely completed at the time of his death in 1750, with the exception of a “colossal” unfinished fugue that was based on the four letters of his last name, B-A-C-H (a compositional device that he liked to use from time to time), of which he had completed all but the culminating section. This revision was published by his heirs in 1751. While attempts have been made to put together a completed version of this fugue, it is often performed as Bach left it, leaving us to wonder what Bach would have written for a coda had he had the time. Yet this is but the ending to an already colossal work, an assemblage of movements of increasing complexity, all based upon a simple musical figure expressed in the first movement. As Christoph Wolff puts it (in his excellent book, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician – a great read for anyone with an interest in music history), it serves as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”
Tonight’s recording also has some individual significance. This 1953 recording by the late keyboard giant Gustav Leonhardt was the first complete recording of the piece. The relative clarity of the recording is astonishing for a recording from such an early date. Although there have been excellent subsequent recordings by some tremendous keyboardists, this remains one of the best available. This also holds an important place in what was then a growing trend towards historically informed recordings of such important works, and it was also part of a series of early recordings that featured the clavichord in performance. In that regard, Leonhardt was one of the great innovators, and deserves credit for helping establish the clavichord and its early keyboard cousins as a point of interest among fans of classical music.
We then continued with a hearing of a lovely rendition of the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, by another excellent keyboardist, the great organist E. Power Biggs. There is some question as to whether the work was actually written by Bach. A number of theories have been suggested, both pro and con as to Bach’s authorship, but the reality is that, as so many of Bach’s pieces have been lost to the ravages of time and circumstance, the truth will never be authoritatively established. But the question of authorship in no way detracts from the extraordinary beauty of the piece. Tonight’s recording is a lovely 1973 rendition that was made in a rather unique 4-organ installation in the Freiburg Cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.
We finish the evening with another Leonhardt recording, this time with Leonhardt performing the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546. Like with many of Bach’s organ works (see above), the origins of this set are also not entirely clear, although in this instance Bach’s authorship is not questioned. It has been suggested that the fugue may have been written during his Weimar period (1708-1717), while the Prelude may have been added after his 1723 arrival at Leipzig. It is a striking example of how essential Bach’s organ compositions are.
- Bach And Handel (Their Influence On Future Composers) (george-frideric-handel.information-about-music.com)