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Bach's Greatest Hits

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  1. I shouldn’t be writing this Note, as it’s not on my list of things to do during my ever-diminishing span of years, but I need closure on a temporary obsession.
  2. Some years back I came across the 170-CD set of Mozart’s complete works, and play these CDs as background music while doing philosophy. In general, the music is non-invasive and drowns out other distractions. Romantic music is no good in this situation as it interferes with one’s thought processes.
  3. More recently1 I managed to get hold of the equivalent 160-CD set of Bach’s complete works. Again, in general the music rambles on pleasingly in the background without causing too much of a disturbance, but occasionally it forces its way into consciousness and grips me for a day or so until I’ve managed to purge it from my system.
  4. Three pieces by Bach have especially2 caught my attention this year3. These are:-
    • St. Luke Passion – BWV 246
    • Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, for organ, BWV 582
    • Chaconne from the Second Partita for solo violin.
  5. Finally, a fourth – and much shorter – piece, Sonatina, BWV 106, for two descant recorders.
  6. I revise this Note from time to time as a result of checking that the YouTube files are still there!

St. Luke Passion
  1. The first is the St. Luke Passion4 – BWV 246. I was obsessed by this as an undergraduate back in the early 1970s, but when I heard it again recently as a background ramble after nearly 40 years was unsure what all the fuss had been about. But when I actually focussed on the piece – to the detriment of my philosophy – the intimacy and understatedness of the work forced itself upon me again.
  2. I do fall prey to sentimentality on occasion, and ended up playing the final tenor aria (Laßt mich ihn nur noch einmal küssen) over and over again. I cannot see how anyone can sing it without bursting into tears.
  3. I’d not thought that the St. Luke Passion would be on YouTube, but there it is, including a take of the tenor aria just referred to:-
    • Tenor Aria: Link.
    • Gerhard Rehm (Full Passion): Link. 1 hour 58 minutes. A bit stodgy.
    • Alternative Full Version: Link. Seems bouncier – my favourite recording. 1 hour, 46 minutes.
    • Another Full Version: [Barati] Kurt Equiluz, Wimmer, Moreira, Sorell. Link. Much slower – far too slow, I think, at 2:13. That said, the pace of the previous version makes the opening a bit too positive – along the “Onward Christian Soldiers” lines.
    • Jan Jirasek / Carl Orff version5: Link. I can’t but think that this reworking is a bad idea, as it takes away the simplicity of the original.
  1. The second was the Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, for organ. Wikipedia: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582.
  2. The main wonder of the piece for the non-organist – apart from the tunefulness of the “ground” and the intricacy of the variations – is just how the performer can play the base register “ground” with both feet while also playing with both hands, especially as sometimes – especially in the fugue – the ground assumes variant forms with running passages. Any wrong note thundered out by a wrong-footing would be immediately obvious and ruinous. The videos are interesting in showing how it’s done.
  3. Some examples from YouTube6:
    • Hans-Andre Stamm: Link. My favourite rendering7.
    • Ton Koopman: Link. The organist adds a number of ornaments, irritating twiddles that aren’t needed as the music is already complex enough. But otherwise is excellent. Played on some massive Japanese organ by the look of things.
    • Karl Richter: Link. Wonderful. There’s a video, but it’s not related to the original recital – though it’s well synchronised. The original, said to be a poor quality audio file, is cited as Link, which is just the Passacaglia (ie. omitting the Fugue). I suspect the full Link is also the original8.
    • Michael Matthes: Link. Excellent. Also interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the only rendering that clearly demarcates the Passacaglia from the Fugue (which is normally taken as the last set of variations and run in without a pause – though I think it’s better played that way). Secondly, there’s a full double-video of organist + feet.
    • Giuseppe Raccuglia: Link. Very nice, but no video.
    • Gianluca Cagnani: Link. Another excellent version, by a cool-looking dude.
    • Scrolling Version: Link. Shows the score scrolling past. Wonderful quality sound as well. The organist would appear to be Michel Chapuis according to the closing credits.
    • Liudmila Matsyura: Link. The only female organist (of this piece) I’ve come across so far. Maybe a bit slow, but fine.
    • Prof. Martin Lücker: Link. I’m not convinced the organist is always in control.
    • Stewart W. Foster: Link. On the world's largest Church pipe organ at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Unfortunately the stops are under-utilised, so it’s a bit underwhelming.
  1. The third set of pieces are the works for solo violin – in particular the Second Partita Wikipedia: Bach - Partita for Violin No. 2 and of course its fifth and final movement, the Chaconne. This is the main reason for writing this Note.
  2. It seems impossible that the same piece of music that seemed to be a slightly discordant racket going on in the background can force itself upon your consciousness so that when properly attended to can be appreciated as – what one modern virtuoso (Joshua Bell – Wikipedia: Joshua Bell) claims9 as “one of the greatest achievements of any man in history”.
  3. There’s lots of discussion as to whether the violin can bear the weight of this music, and there are piano and guitar transcriptions. To quote the programme notes that came with my CDs (in this case by Clemens Romijn) “Bach seems to demand the very most of the violin, or perhaps even more, more indeed than it can cope with. Many passages, particularly those with frequent double-stopping, cannot be performed literally.” These notes claim that (almost) no-one other than Bach himself could have played them at the time they were written, and that he probably had himself in mind as their performer.
  4. My view is that only the violin can express the emotion – mostly grief – required of the chaconne, which was allegedly written when Bach heard of his wife’s death while he was away on a trip with his employer.
  5. There’s also a question how the pieces should be played – with or without vibrato, with or without frenzied dynamics, and the like; also, how fast. This is part of the general question whether a Baroque piece should be played in an authentically Baroque manner, should this be known. My uneducated view is that the chaconne should be played with great emotion, but not so as to risk breaking the violin. That’s how I like it, anyway.
  6. The real purpose of this Note is to list the YouTube10 recordings of the Chaconne that cropped up when I did a search. No doubt the links will fail after a while, but alternative links will presumably become available. They are (with brief comments):-
    • Itzhak Perlman: Link. Wonderful11. Contains the full Partita – the gigue just before the chaconne is especially good. Has the right amount of passion to go with the perfect technique.
    • Itzhak Perlman: Link. Just the chaconne this time.
    • Scrolling version: Link. This has Bach’s manuscript scrolling in time with the music, so you can see how what is played differs from what is actually scored. Presumably there’s a lot of compression in the score. I’m not sure who’s actually playing this rendering, but it’s well done. This version – Link – does the same for the full partita, but with the modern score in addition.
    • Yehudi Menuhin: Link. From 1956, this is similar in style to Itzhak Perlman (or maybe vice-versa). No actual video.
    • Nathan Milstein: Link. This is from Milstein’s last concert, aged 83. An excellent, controlled rendering. He wipes away a tear at the end, though the reason is unclear.
    • Maxim Vengerov: Link. Great, but maybe not enough passion.
    • Maxim Vengerov: Link. From Aushwitz – shorter than the above (maybe cut slightly) – also the recording must be dubbed on the video, though it’s well done.
    • Jascha Heifetz: Link. Supposedly by the greatest violinist ever, but I found this rendering (when compared with some of the alternatives) a bit flat.
    • Isaac Stern: Link. Similar to Menuhin. But with a video.
    • Viktoria Mullova: Link. A bit too gentle.
    • Ivry Gitlis: Link. Maybe too harsh.
    • Gidon Cremer: Link. A bit too much bashing of the violin and bobbing up and down.
    • James Ehnes: Link. Gentle. The main rival to the “violin bashers”.
    • Hilary Hahn: Link. Perfect, but maybe – at nearly 18 minutes – too slow and lifeless.
    • Janine Jansen: Link. Quicker than Hahn, but still a little tame.
  7. Bach/Busoni piano version: Initially, I thought this a barbarous idea, and it does lack some of the delicate intensity of the solo-violin original; but some of the renderings are good, for instance:-
    • Valentina Lisitsa: Link.
    • Evgeny Kissin: Link. Or Link.
    • Helene Grimaud: Link.
    • Arthur Rubinstein: Link. Very gentle.

  1. This is very short piece (less than 3 minutes), but requires careful listing.
  2. There are two versions - one where the main tune is played by two descant recorders, and the second is a piano transcription.
  3. While the piano version is wonderful, and recorders are usually horrid, the recorder version is "the one" for me. Bach knows what he's doing - the purity of the recorders' notes means that when the two play a semitone apart the acoustic "beats" probably12 enter into the experience and make it especially tingly.
  4. Anyway, the links are:-
    • Link (recorder)
    • Link (better recorders, but something's not quite as good ... I think one recorder is too quiet).
    • Link or Link (piano)

In-Page Footnotes:

Footnote 1: This was Christmas 2011.

Footnote 2: Of course, almost everything Bach wrote was wonderful, but you can’t focus on everything to appreciate them properly, and some pieces become over-familiar.

Footnote 3: This would have been in 2013.

Footnote 4: Footnote 5: Footnote 6: Obviously, the sound quality is better on CD, but these give an idea, and also the videos allow you to see the technique – and appreciate the amount of footwork that goes on.

Footnote 7: This is part of a cycle. Link is the same recording.

Footnote 8: It may be – it’s the same video; while it gives indications of being super, the actual audio file is mostly poor and sometimes dreadful!

Footnote 9: Not too immoderately, in my current view. It’s “up there” with the Sistene Chapel and all that.

Footnote 10: As with the Passacaglia, the sound quality is better on CD, but these give an idea of the variety of interpretations, and also the videos allow you to see the technique – and appreciate the amount of energy put into the performances.

Footnote 11: These comments are based on a live recording made in Perlman’s relative youth, at a St. Johns, Smith Square lunchtime concert. Unfortunately, the copyright holders blocked it.

Footnote 12:

Printable Version:

Table of the Previous 4 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
21/07/2016 16:12:00 18732 Bach's Greatest Hits
05/04/2016 23:19:41 18732 Bach's Greatest Hits
26/03/2014 19:09:07 10885 Bach's Greatest Hits
20/11/2013 10:46:34 7921 Bach's Greatest Hits

Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
14/10/2016 22:14:53 1007 (Bach's Greatest Hits) Theo Todman's Blog

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