Archives for posts with tag: Johann Sebastian Bach

MattA stirring performance of the St Matthew Passion on Saturday night in Winchester Cathedral (by the Waynflete Singers with guest conductor Sir Roger Norrington), reminded me just how great the opening chorus (“Kommt ihr Tochter”) is. It’s ridiculous to try to analyse such a towering masterpiece in a short blog entry – and I wouldn’t feel up to the task however many words I used. Instead I’ll just summarise the most obvious things I heard once again tonight that add up to so much.

First the orchestral introduction with its ominous, 12/8 tread over a persistent pedal point and grinding harmonies, ratcheting up the tension before the choir enters. In fact two choirs enter, spatially separated and singing different parts. They represent the crowds in Jerusalem (perhaps on either side of the road) questioning each other as Jesus walks slowly along bearing the cross. And there’s a third layer, choirboys singing a simple chorale melody (“innocent Lamb of God”), soaring above the complex texture in a bright G major, which contrasts with the choir’s somber E minor. Towards the end, when it seems like all the main material has been presented, the choir takes up something new, a more fragmented, quieter and harmonically uneasy sequential passage, as the crowd starts to acknowledge its own complicity and guilt. “Look. Look where? On our offence”. After that the two choirs come together as one for the first time: “Look – behold his love for us”. It’s breathtaking.

This is one of Bach’s longest single choral movements, usually lasting around eight minutes, but it never seems long enough to me – though that doesn’t mean it should be played too slowly. There’s an urgency in the music that pushes it along and that shouldn’t be resisted. For me the reason this movement is so compelling is its mixture of explicit drama, coming from the situation and the text, coupled with music that’s expertly paced in the way it ebbs and flows harmonically and rhythmically. On top of this are the spatial contrasts between the two choirs, the choirboys and the two orchestras. It’s as if the various forces have been blocked for positions, just as actors are in the theatre. This all intensifies the drama to an unimaginable height. Norrington (who is now 81 years old), sat down to conduct the performance, but his long arms expertly traced the contours of the piece to guide and inspire the performers. Chorus Master George Castle, who did a lot of the preparatory work behind the scenes, was also on hand to conduct the Winchester Cathedral Choristers.

For a very different production with the very minimum of forces that highlights the drama (perhaps a little at the expense of the music, but exhilarating none the less) an excerpt of Jonathan Miller’s theatrical staging can be seen here.


GOldIt seemed particularly appropriate to go to the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 9th for a late night concert starting at 10pm to hear Joanna MacGregor play The Goldberg Variations – given the (probably mythical) back story of Bach composing the variations as an aid to the insomnia of Count Kaiserling, as first related by Forkel. Indeed the couple next to us slept throughout the entire performance, despite our position right at the front of the hall, to the left of the piano. I’d read Tovey’s famous extended essay on the Variations in the days before the concert, and it helped especially to bear in mind some of his arguments – for instance the organization and central importance of the canons, which occur at every third variation and gradually widen out from the first unison canon to the second, third, fourth interval (etc) right up to the octave. Tovey points out how Bach particularly emphasizes the characteristics of each interval in the individual treatment of each of the canons – and says that, despite their strict formality, they form the emotional heart of the work. Following the progress of these canons as the intervals become wider, an entirely audible process, is a great way of keeping your bearings during a performance.

Tovey also discusses the underlying dance forms that are used within the variations, and it’s this aspect that MacGregor is particularly notable for. Many of us grew up listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, which while quirky (to say the least) articulates the counterpoint with crystal clarity. MacGregor is at her strongest when bringing out the dance aspects of movements, with their unpredictable accents and phrases flowing freely across the bar lines. A good example is the brief but lively variation number four, in fast 3/8 time and with an emphasis on clipped quaver rhythms. It’s possibly an example of the baroque passepied dance (a form Bach uses elsewhere, such as in the first orchestral suite). For comparison, Gould’s version sounds plodding, and as it omits all the repeats is only 29 seconds long, too brief to make its impact.

From our position at the front left hand side we also had a good view of the keyboard, and could see MacGregor expertly negotiate the intricate and virtuosic cross-hand passages that result from some of the variations being written for instruments with two separate keyboard manuals. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and recommend the rest of the series of late concerts, including particularly interesting programmes from  New York Polyphony (June 27th) and Anne Sofie von Otter with Steven Isserlis and Bengt Forsberg (July 4th). 

Musical Authors I have ignored Dominico Scarlatti’s one movement keyboard sonatas for years, thinking of them (if I did at all) as sub-Bach. A passage from Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflats that I came across recently has made me go and seek them out. Here’s the passage:

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.

Bunting (1900-1985) was always interested in music and his poetry was written to be read aloud to bring out its sonic qualities. Briggflatts is a long autobiographical poem written in 1965 (“the finest long poem to be written in England since T S Eliot’s Four Quartets”, according to Cyril Connolly). In live performances, Bunting used to read its five parts interspersed with recordings of Scarlatti, and modeled the structure of his poems on the music. He chose the classic 1956 George Malcolm harpsichord selection (also used in Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe recording of the poem, first issued in 1980), but I’m afraid I prefer the piano, and Mikhail Pletnev’s performances in particular, despite some criticism that he brings too much of a romantic sensibility to the pieces. However, to me they balance the two worlds perfectly – in the D major sonata (KK 443, L418) for instance, the brittle, ornamented opening immediately brings to mind the harpsichord, but as soon as the main theme comes in (at 12 seconds), Pletnev eases into the music with finely judged pianistic legato and expansiveness.

Scarlatti suffers from the fact that there are over 550 sonatas and it’s hard to know where to start – the Malcolm and Pletnev recordings only share four common selections.