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Bach's Greatest Hits
(Text as at 14/10/2016 22:14:53)
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- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Finally, a fourth – and much shorter – piece, Sonatina, BWV 106, for two descant recorders.
- I revise this Note from time to time as a result of checking that the YouTube files are still there!
St. Luke Passion
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: Web Link.
- Gerhard Rehm (Full Passion): Web Link. 1 hour 58 minutes. A bit stodgy.
- Alternative Full Version: Web Link. Seems bouncier – my favourite recording. 1 hour, 46 minutes.
- Another Full Version: [Barati] Kurt Equiluz, Wimmer, Moreira, Sorell. Web 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: Web Link. I can’t but think that this reworking is a bad idea, as it takes away the simplicity of the original.
- The second was the Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, for organ. Web Link.
- 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.
- Some examples from YouTube6:
- Hans-Andre Stamm: Web Link. My favourite rendering7.
- Ton Koopman: Web 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: Web 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 Web Link, which is just the Passacaglia (ie. omitting the Fugue). I suspect the full Web Link is also the original8.
- Michael Matthes: Web 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: Web Link. Very nice, but no video.
- Gianluca Cagnani: Web Link. Another excellent version, by a cool-looking dude.
- Scrolling Version: Web 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: Web Link. The only female organist (of this piece) I’ve come across so far. Maybe a bit slow, but fine.
- Prof. Martin Lücker: Web Link. I’m not convinced the organist is always in control.
- Stewart W. Foster: Web 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.
- The third set of pieces are the works for solo violin – in particular the Second Partita Web Link and of course its fifth and final movement, the Chaconne. This is the main reason for writing this Note.
- 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 – Web Link) claims9 as “one of the greatest achievements of any man in history”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: Web 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: Web Link. Just the chaconne this time.
- Scrolling version: Web 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 – Web Link – does the same for the full partita, but with the modern score in addition.
- Yehudi Menuhin: Web Link. From 1956, this is similar in style to Itzhak Perlman (or maybe vice-versa). No actual video.
- Nathan Milstein: Web 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: Web Link. Great, but maybe not enough passion.
- Maxim Vengerov: Web 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: Web Link. Supposedly by the greatest violinist ever, but I found this rendering (when compared with some of the alternatives) a bit flat.
- Isaac Stern: Web Link. Similar to Menuhin. But with a video.
- Viktoria Mullova: Web Link. A bit too gentle.
- Ivry Gitlis: Web Link. Maybe too harsh.
- Gidon Cremer: Web Link. A bit too much bashing of the violin and bobbing up and down.
- James Ehnes: Web Link. Gentle. The main rival to the “violin bashers”.
- Hilary Hahn: Web Link. Perfect, but maybe – at nearly 18 minutes – too slow and lifeless.
- Janine Jansen: Web Link. Quicker than Hahn, but still a little tame.
- 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:-
- This is very short piece (less than 3 minutes), but requires careful listing.
- There are two versions - one where the main tune is played by two descant recorders, and the second is a piano transcription.
- 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.
- Anyway, the links are:-
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.
- This is “doubtfully” by Bach – along with his signature-tune (the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565).
- I’ll ignore such quibbles, but you can follow these Wiki-links: Web Link and Web Link.
- There’s a useful extract from a booklet accompanying a recording, extracted from a blog on the Bach Cantatas (Web Link): There is a fine recording on CPO, which puts the work in the best possible light. These are the details: Mona Spägele, soprano; Christiane Iven, contralto; Harry van Berne, Rufus Müller (Evangelist), tenor; Marcus Sandmann, Stephan Schreckenberger (Jesus), bass; Alsfelder Vokalensemble; Barockorchester Bremen/Wolfgang Helbich (CPO - 999 293-2). There is a very interesting essay on this work in the booklet. I'll quote two passages from it.
- "Our only source for the St. Luke Passion is a score copy begun by Johann Sebastian Bach and completed by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Today the manuscript is housed in the Berlin State Library. Since neither the title page nor the superscription mentions the composer by name, we can understand why this score in Bach's hand (his son's participation was not recognized until much later on) was attributed to him. Another factor suggesting Bach's authorship was the »J. J.« (Jesu juva = Jesus, help!) at the beginning of the copy; this was the petition for divine assistance with which he usually began his manuscripts.
- The Breitkopf music publishing house presumably obtained the manuscript from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's estate. The Bach collector Franz Hauser acquired it during the nineteenth century and asked his friend Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to state his opinion of it. Mendelssohn wrote that »I am sorry that you gave so much money for the St. Luke Passion. It was not too much to pay for it as a manuscript of unquestioned authenticity, but it is just as certain that this music is not by him....You ask for what reason the Luke is not by Sebastian Bach? For internal reasons...; if that is by Sebastian, then I'll be hanged, and yet it is unmistakably his handwriting. But it is too clean; he copied it...« This judgment of 1838 is the one that has ended up prevailing. Later Hauser's son, the chamber singer Joseph Hauser, had the family collection with him in Karlsruhe, where Johannes Brahms found occasion to look at the manuscript.
- As Mendelssohn before him, Brahms did not let himself be fooled by the fact that the manuscript was in Bach's hand. He too firmly rejected the nation of Bach's authorship for artistic reasons. It was impossible to overlook the vast divide separating this work of modest design from the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244). Nevertheless the Bach biographer and researcher Philipp Spittawas of another opinion. He regarded the St. Luke Passion as a work of the Thomaskantor's youth, and his support of its authenticity secured it a place in the old complete edition of Bach's works.
- When Max Schneider demonstrated that Bach's son had collaborated on the copy (more than half of the score is in his hand), the doubts about its authenticity became a certainty. Although the St. Luke Passion was listed in Wolfgang Schmieder's catalogue of Bach's works as BWV 246 as late as 1950, today the general consensus is that this composition is a work not by Bach but by a contemporary of his, one who most likely lived and worked in Central Germany, and that Bach copied out and performed this composers work. The repeated abjection that it is an extremely weak composition takes Bach's genuine passions as its yardstick and is unjustified. After all, the Thomaskantor himself was willing to invest the time and energy required for two performances of the St. Luke Passion. We should not forget this fact in our evaluation of it."
- "The identity of the composer of the St. Luke Passion is a question that has often been considered. He must have been a musician active in Central Germany around 1735 and was probably born shortly before 1700. In my research I have come up with a number of bits of evidence suggesting the possibility that its composer may have been the still little-knownEisenach court music director Johann Melchior Molter (1696- 1765). Molter, the son of a Kantor, was born in Tiefenort bei Eisenach and attended the Eisenach Preparatory School before entering the service of the Margrave Carl-Wilhelm of Boden-Durlach in Karlsruhe in 1717. Studies in Venice and Rome during 1719-21 brought him into direct contact with Italian musicians such as A. Vivaldi and A. Scarlatti. He was appointed to the post of court music director in Karlsruhe in 1722. After the disbandment of the court orchestra at the end of 1733 as a result of the outbreak of the Polish War of Succession, Molter was appointed to the then vacant music director's post in Eisenach. He began his service in Eisenachduring Easter 1734 and held this post until the dissolution of the Eisenach court in the summer of 1741.
- The St. Luke Passion exhibits many parallels and points of relation to other compositions known to be by Molter, not only to eleven church cantatas discovered in Regensburg some years ago and a two-part passion oratorio extant in Sondershausen, all doting to his Eisenach years, but also to other works of his. All of this makes his authorship at least seem possible. These resemblances have been overlooked for the simple reason that Molter's sacred works have managed to elude researchers up until now.
- This almost direct juxtaposition of old-fashioned traditional elements and modern elements is also found in Molter's passion oratorio dating to around 1735. Elegant instrumentations with, for example, a solo instrument and string pizzicato occur repeatedly in his arias and in the clearly recognizable technique combining different tonal and motion layers (oboes, strings, chorus, continuo) in the introductory passion chorus. It is precisely the introductory measures ascribed to Bach at the beginning of the second part that correspond especially well to Molter's orchestral style of strong Venetian stamp. Linguistic and formal points of relation also exist between the madrigal texts in the St. Luke Passion and those by Gottfried Loos (1686-1741), the Eisenach court poet who wrote for Molter."
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.
- First 13 stanzas.
- The rest of the 53 stanzas ought to be easily be found, but in fact the only ones I can find (admittedly, the bulk) are:-
→ 22-30: Web Link
→ 31-36: Web Link
→ 47-53: Web Link
Footnote 7: This is part of a cycle. Web 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.
- I’m not quite sure about this, but according to my calculations, the frequency of the “beats” would be about 40 Hz, which is in fact an audible note (the E two octaves below middle C).
- For “beats” see Web Link. The bottom line is that the frequency of the beat is the difference between the frequencies of the notes.
- For frequencies, see Web Link – the frequency of the recorder notes will be about 700 Hz, with the semitone difference being about 40 Hz.
- I’m also not sure whether anyone has picked up on this before – and whether it is indeed relevant – but the Wikipedia article mentions that composers have used beats for effect in their compositions, but none of them appear to be of the baroque period.
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