Since I am feeling celebratory after our fantastic NYFOS 30 th Anniversary concert last night, I picked a joyous bass aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Bach has become my favorite composer over the years. He’s just the best not only because of his incomparable technical chops, his innovativeness and originality, the deep feeling that is expressed in his music, his text setting and painting, his brilliant orchestrations, etc. are all among the best any composer ever has to offer. But all of his discrete skills are always tied together and elevated beyond the sum of their parts by the joy of making music that is ever-present in his music. Whenever I listen to Bach, I get jealous of the people performing it! I even wish I played recorder when I hear Bach because he can make even that lame, overtone-poor instrument sound fun and irreplaceable in his writing. Bach seems to get how different instruments communicate certain unique emotional resonances, and I think he understood how certain types are drawn to certain instruments. When I listen to this aria, I hear so much distinct personality in the strings as they flitter in and around the vocal line. I know my flautist friends would love playing their lick in this great jam, and I don’t even have to talk about how fun and deeply pleasurable the trumpet solo is!
After trying to choose among various live video performances of this aria on YouTube, I decided to go with my favorite recording of it—conducted by the exemplary Bachian, John Eliot Gardiner and sung with virtuosic gusto and class by Olaf Bär—even though there is no video of the performance. Let your imagination fill in the delight that must play on the orchestras faces as they saw and toot their way through this joyous romp.That’s another thing I love about Bach: the fact that the great and powerful king cares not for splendor is a cause for celebration for him. Amen!
Jesu, meine Freude. Jesus, my Joy. Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s fair to say that classical musicians agree that Bach at the very top of creative geniuses. His music seems in a class by itself. And he wrote lots and lots of music. It seemed to just pour out of him. I’m amazed at how personal his music sounds to me. It’s full of emotional feeling, belief, hope, and tragedy. On a snowy day like this, when I hope to stay in, listening to Bach is like having a private religious ceremony. This is a church I actually want to attend. I don’t mind if Jesus is the subject. If Jesus is listening, it isn’t to hear the sound of his name over and over. I think he just loves the music. Here are the first three parts of Jesu, mine Freude in a beautiful performance.
To end the week on an upbeat, let’s have a group sing. Here is the opening chorus from Bach’s Cantata No. 11. It is from the marvelous complete cantata recordings by Gustave Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt. I had the good fortune of participating in masterclasses with both of them on various occasions. I wasn’t exactly a baroque-nik, but their music making was so fresh and vital, I felt I needed to learn from them. They have both passed on, and I miss their generous musical positivity. But their recordings remain among my favorites. And what a contribution: ALL the extant cantatas. Wow.
And whether you believe in Luther’s religion, or God, or anything, the music is about praising the best in all of us through song. That lines up with me, and the ethos of NYFOS.
|Cantata for Ascension|
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen,
Preiset ihn in seinen Ehren,
Rühmet ihn in seiner Pracht;
Sucht sein Lob recht zu vergleichen,
Wenn ihr mit gesamten Chören
Ihm ein Lied zu Ehren macht!
Praise God in His riches,
Praise Him in His honor,
Extol Him in His splendor;
Seek to rightly imitate His praise
When with full chorus
You make a song in His honor!
Continuing our quick survey of J.S. Bach, here is another cantata aria. It is really chamber music. The countertenor’s expressive part is underpinned by an incredible duet between the organ and oboe, creating a kind of trio sonata. The mastery of counterpoint is intimidating (at least for us performers), but the outcome is so joyful, it’s irresistible. The text? Well, it is about death, but the joy comes not from some promised afterlife, where, finally, everything will be tolerable. It is about living one’s life fully, so that when you reach the endgame you are ready, fulfilled, and feel that you have made some contribution that has been ultimately satisfying. Here is the text and translation to “Mein Leben hat kein ander Ziel” (recitative) and “Willkommen! Will ice sagen” from Cantata No. 27. This wonderful performance begins at 4:40, the aria at 5:00, but you may just want to listen to all of it.
|2. Recitative T
Mein Leben hat kein ander Ziel,
Als daß ich möge selig sterben
Und meines Glaubens Anteil erben;
Drum leb ich allezeit
Zum Grabe fertig und bereit,
Und was das Werk der Hände tut,
Ist gleichsam, ob ich sicher wüßte,
Daß ich noch heute sterben müßte:
Denn Ende gut, macht alles gut!
|2. Recitative T
My life has no other goal,
than that I might die happy
and inherit my faith’s portion;
Therefore I live constantly
prepared and ready for the grave,
and whatever deeds my hands might do
are the same to me, as if I knew for sure
that even today I must die:
for to end well, makes everything well!
|3. Arie A
Willkommen! will ich sagen,
Wenn der Tod ans Bette tritt.
Fröhlich will ich folgen,
wenn er ruft,
In die Gruft,
Alle meine Plagen
Nehm ich mit.
|3. Aria A
Welcome! I will say
when Death steps to my bed.
I will joyfully follow,
when he calls,
into the tomb,
I will take all my troubles
Today let’s revisit Bach’s Cantata No.199. It’s a favorite of sopranos, for the obvious reason of the absolute beauty and gentleness of the central aria “Tief gebuckt und voller Reue”. In the best Lutheran tradition, the text addresses God, admitting guilt and weakness, but implores God to be patient. This beautiful performance is sung by Magdalena Kozena and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. I recommend his wonderful biography “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven”. It’s scholarly and gives the sense of what Bach’s life and work was really like.
I’m surveying some of my favorite Bach this week. I won’t be able to make a dent in the 250 surviving Cantatas, Oratorios, Masses, or Passions, alas. It’s true that most of Bach’s vocal output is liturgical. There are exceptions: The Coffee Cantata, the Hunt Cantata, and this beauty found in Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook. Did she write it herself? One of her talented sons? Or was it a valentine from her husband that she wrote down in her musical journal? Here is a lovely performance from a musically precocious boy soprano. This is the kind of voice that sang almost all of Bach’s music in the Leipzig Thomaskirche, usually when the ink was still wet.
My quick translation-
Be next to me
I will go with joy
To my death and peace.
Oh how delightful
Will my end be.
Your beautiful hands
Will close my loyal and loving eyes.
I’ve just completed a successful time at the 25th annual Moab Music Festival. It’s a big achievement which I am proud of. NYFOS is celebrating our 30th year starting next month, so this seems to be a big anniversary year for me. Moab and NYFOS have converged on many occasions, but never around the music of Bach. There are so many specialty groups now that specialize in early music, which includes Bach. At NYFOS I guess we feel that Bach is covered. You can hear him lots of places, and his music continues, rightfully so, to be recorded by every new artist that wants to climb that great musical mountain.
In Moab, baritone Jesse Blumberg sang my favorite aria of Bach’s in my favorite place to make music—a grotto 20 miles down the Colorado River. Musicians and patrons have to take a boat to get there, the silence is profound, the acoustics pure. I asked Jesse to sing this because Lorraine Hunt (pre-Lieberson) sang it there with me, and it has remained indelible in my memory. Here is Lorraine in that aria—“Schlummert Ein” from the Cantata “Ich habe Genug” on a fairly early recording. I think Lorraine got even more magical and dove even deeper in her music making toward the very end of her life, but this recording still captures her melding of her voice, text, and emotion in a way that was unique to her, and shall stay with me till my dying day.
I’ve been drawn closer and closer to Bach lately. Maybe he’s the only antidote I have to our perilous and uncertain times. Yesterday was “Bist Du bei Mir”. And the day before “Schlummert Ein”. To follow, I was drawn to the Goldberg Variations, since it starts with an Aria. I thought that would be the basis of the Song of the Day. No performance on Youtube was particularly convincing. I thought, “oh what the hell, let’s see how old Glenn Gould stacks up”. So here is the Aria plus all 30 variations plus the aria again, played by Glenn Gould in 1955. We all know it’s a great masterpiece but today I realized this is really the first song cycle.
G.G. is 22 yrs. old and he strikes out in a bold and frisky way. Nothing is slow and this performance made him a star. (Duh). But what I am most drawn to, hearing it now with experienced ears, and lots of music in my soul, is an unexpected vocal quality that he brings to the instrument. We pianists are always trying to find a real vocal legato which is impossible since we strike hammers on strings. I know Glenn always sang along with his playing. I think he thought of music as melodic, and it’s what makes his Bach profound. He actually hears every voice, and sings them all. He doesn’t play a real legato, but the notes connect vocally. Can you hear it? And it’s touching to hear some rubato, which he manages with delicacy and beauty.
But the Aria! What a wonderful tune. Listen to that and all 30 Variations. You won’t be disappointed and it will lift your day onto a higher plane.
Today’s Song of the Day features one of my all-time favorites, again by J.S.Bach. I’ve been re-reading John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven with much pleasure. Do yourself a favor and read it. This is from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook—things she wrote down for herself and her many kids. It voices the beautiful wish that at death, one’s beloved is with them, and that they can gently go into that good night of the other world. “Es drueckten dein schoene Haende, mir die getreuen Augen zu”. trans: Your beautiful hands will close my faithful eyes. Seems like a nice way to go, especially if it’s sung. Here is soprano Emma Kirkby with really beautiful (and tasteful) ornaments, in what I call a stylistically satisfying performance, accompanied by portative organ and cello on continuo.
J.S. Bach is still the guiding light for most of us who have studied and practice classical music. He created a kind of purity that I think married humanity with the loftiest concept of God. I personally find Bach is enough, without religion. And when Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is singing, I feel like I’m safe and loved and touched by grace. Please listen to “Schlummert Ein” from Cantata No. 82 Ich Habe Genug. Lorraine taught it to me, and I will never forget our performance on the Colorado River. If there is a God, she was there.
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