why overcomplicate things?

This is my type of equipment:  I’ve had this pre-amp for years, it makes a great sound, and its control panel is, shall we say, refreshingly simple…

preamp

Opera North Ring Cycle on Southbank – thoughts

Last week Opera North’s much-praised Ring Cycle came to the Royal Festival Hall, and I cleared the decks to go to all four performances.  This was a “fully staged concert version,” with a triptych of screens at the back of the stage showing video images, surtitles and some essential plot lines. The mimimalist dramatic realisation – with no props – left me wanting more, although nature did intervene to bring us a rainbow  at the South Bank during Friday’s first interval. A fast track to Valhalla perhaps?

Wotan's Rainbow

Inevitably this concept placed more emphasis on the music, with the Orchestra of Opera North on the stage rather than underneath it.  The conductor was Opera North’s music director Richard Farnes whose reading of the score was outstanding.  He leaves the company after 12 years at the helm, and he will be much missed; no-one has a bad word to say about him. And while the pick and mix cast could be disorientating – there were three different Wotans – maybe this was always going to be the nature of the beast, and we had an outstanding Brünnhilde in Kelly Cae Hogan.

This way of putting on the Ring also made it possible for Opera North to tackle this huge work in the first place; apart from anything else, none of its usual theatres have pits big enough to accommodate an orchestra of this vast size.

So what of Wagner’s score? Last week was a reminder that Wagner’s tetralogy is so much more powerful when heard in one go rather than in separate instalments.  In particular I was gripped by the way the harmonic language of the Ring deepens over time – not only because of the unfolding tragedy of the drama, but the fact that the score was written over a twenty-year time span.  Take for example what he does with the Rhinemaidens’ Rheingold motif: as the drama heads towards its conclusion in Götterdämmerung, the harmonies have become dark, twisted, and shocking.

Rheingold motif

This was one of my occasional Classic Discovery projects in which I team up with Olivia Lacey of the Feast of  Reason supper club. In the past our joint projects have taken us to the LSO at the Barbican, to the LPO at the Festival Hall, and to hear Márta and  György Kurtág in concert. These events aim to be both interesting and sociable; on this occasion I set the scene for the Ring by giving talks before or during each performance, and thanks to Olivia we enjoyed a picnic to die for in a bar on level 4.

IMG_7275As ever there was a really interesting group of people to get to know and exchange ideas with, from Wagner newbies to veterans of many Ring Cycles.  And diaries permitting we are planning to do something similar in the summer of 2017.  If you’d like to join us, contact Olivia directly via the Feast of Reason webpage and she’ll be delighted to send you more information.

Bach cantatas pre-concert talk – full text

In March 2016 the Academy of Ancient Music asked me to give a couple of pre-performance talks before their concerts of Bach cantatas in London and Cambridge. Here’s the full text:

J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas for the Leipzig liturgy, and a close look at BWV 127 – “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott”.
AAM pre-performance talk
1830 Thurs 24th, Sat 26th March 2016

Introduction

Good evening everyone, it’s a great pleasure to be invited to give this pre-concert talk, particularly when it’s on a subject so close to my heart as the 200 or so surviving sacred cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach in the year 2000, when I was slaving at the coal face of BBC Radio 3 as a presenter of classical music programmes, I would often introduce cantata recordings and live broadcasts of the many leading early music groups which were performing this body of work to mark 250 years since Bach’s death.
At the same time, in my local area of Bedford Park, Chiswick, West London, I was directing and masterminding a complete cycle of cantatas of my own at our local church, St Michael and All Angels. It began in 1997 and ended in 2010, everyone worked for free, and we raised money through a retiring collection for a local Christian homeless charity the Upper Room. Only a few of the cantatas were well known, and I’m pretty sure that’s still the case today: for the most part we were all coming to the music completely new; part of the joy of the experience was to relate what we were performing to what we’d already learned about performing the cantatas during the cycle, and to two similar larger-scale and better-known Bach works, the John Passion and the Matthew Passion.

On the one hand the whole thing was very hard work; on the other it was incredibly rewarding and a real privilege; here was our chance to get to know this repertoire from the inside, not just from listening to recordings and professional performances. The strongest impression that I took away from that experience was that the cantatas are completely satisfying. Bach was a supreme musical craftsman – anyone who has worked their way through any of the fugues in the Well-Tempered Klavier could tell you that. But the standout feature of these cantatas isn’t the music – it’s the way he puts his astonishing musical skills directly at the service of the Christian faith. I say directly, because for Bach all of the music he wrote whether it was sacred or secular was “soli Deo Gloria.”

What I’d like to do is to look at just one of the cantatas in this evening’s programme: the first work, BWV 127: Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott – Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God. I’m going to look at each of the five movements and talk about them in some detail. You should all have concert programmes with texts and translations – if not, this is a good time to go and make friends with a stranger…
By way of illustration I’ll be dipping into two recordings of BWV 127; for the first movement I’m using the Phillippe Herreweghe version on Harmonia Mundi; I’m using volume 21 of the John Eliot Gardiner Bach cantatas cycle with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for the other movements; and I’ll also be playing an aria from the St Matthew Passion in the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording on the Teldec label.
I’m going to talk about the movements of the cantata in this order: 5, 2,3,4, 1: for reasons which will become clear.
So let’s begin at the very end with the final movement, in which the last verse of the chorale of the same name (Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott) is sung straight in four part harmony. The text, in translation- my translation may be slightly different from yours, is this:

Ah, Lord, forgive all our misdeeds, / help us to wait with patience
until our hour comes upon us;
also may our faith be always brave, / trusting Your word firmly,
until we fall asleep contentedly. [MUSIC FOLLOWS]

Music one –BWV 127/5 – play all – 00’00” to 00’50”

Chorales were very important in Lutheran worship, right from the very beginning. The Augsburg Confession, a sort of road map for Lutheranism of 1530, specifies that in certain places in the celebration of mass, “German hymns are sung … for the instruction and exercise of the people.” The melodies were newly written, or adapted from pre-existing plainchant or even popular songs; the texts could be adapted from Psalms, sacred songs, or hymns. With memorable, singable tunes, and words in everyday language that people could understand, the chorales were a key element of getting the Lutheran message over to people. Fast forward two hundred years or so, and we find the chorale still at the heart of the work of a Lutheran composer like Bach, whether he set them simply as there or in a much more elaborate way, as he does in the opening chorus of BWV 127 which I’ll come on to last.
Almost all Bach’s cantatas end with a straightforward harmonisation of a chorale, which the congregation would recognise and relate to if not necessarily sing along with. You might have noticed an interesting modal quirk in that chorale. Simply put, it seems to start in F major and end in C major; tonally it inhabits a kind of F Lydian mode. And while most of the harmonisation is straightforward, Bach does bring in some chromatic colouring in the last phrase, to reflect the closing words “until we fall asleep contentedly.” In other words, not so much falling asleep as dying. Death was a blessed relief for C18th Lutherans, though not without pain and sadness, which is reflected in the harmonic setting there.

Those “plain” chorale endings to Bach’s cantatas can present a challenge for those of us with modern musical ears. There is no grand finale … but within the context of the Lutheran service it made more sense; as the last chord of the cantata was still reverberating at its first performance in 1725, the Pfarrer, the pastor, would be rising to his feet to deliver the sermon. Cantata and sermon were side by side; the twin high points of the Sunday morning Hauptgottesdienst.
Most of tonight’s music comes from Bach’s time at Leipzig, where he served as Thomaskantor from 1723 until he died in 1750. His early years in Leipzig were incredibly productive; he saw this job as his opportunity to realise a long-held dream of creating “a well-regulated church music”. And so he embarked on a remarkable flurry of activity, writing cantatas like this one for every Sunday and holy day service week in and week out – on top of all his other work – for, according to CPE Bach, five years on end.
This cantata was first performed on 11th February 1725; it belongs to Bach’s second annual cantata cycle, the standout feature of which is the way Bach didn’t just stick chorales on the end of his cantatas but integrated them into the whole work. The chorale we’ve just heard which dates from the 1560s informs every movement of BWV 127. Its melody by Claude Goudimel opens with eight notes that reappear strikingly throughout the cantata: F | F F E C |D E F. While it was one Paul Eber who wrote the chorale text, originally laying it out in eight verses. Bach takes the first verse and sets it in his first movement, sets the eighth verse in that final movement, and quotes from the six internal verses in the second third and fourth movements of his cantata. I say Bach, I really mean the author of the libretto, who is anonymous. So you might say that the hymn from back in the 1560s is being exploded with C18 meaning in 1725 – updated with modern insights and indeed musical resources.
Let’s look at the second movement now – a solo recitative for tenor and continuo rich in vivid imagery. Just cast your eye over the text …

Within a minute of music the singer paints a vivid unflinching portrait of a human’s final moments before death, and the arrival of Jesus to offer emotional support as death is embraced. The text of this recitative is based closely on the second and third verses of the sixteenth-century hymn, but with one modification. Bach or his librettist adds something new towards the end which isn’t there in the original. And it’s this phrase: “He who endured His suffering with patience accompanies me also on this difficult journey…” This cantata was written for Estomihi, as the Lutherans called it the last Sunday before Lent, a period which was a tempus clausum for Lutherans – after this Sunday there would be no concerted music for the entire period of Lent, right the way up to Good Friday.
And we know what happened on Good Friday – it was on Good Friday that the Passions were first performed – imagine the impact of that music, church music at its most powerful, after weeks of having heard nothing like it! Similarly, the Estomihi cantatas that Bach wrote for the Sundays in the church year just before that drought of church music was due to start seem to have been put together especially carefully. As Alfred Dürr says: “Almost all bear the mark of specially high artistic skill.”
Movement three now … back in the C16th Paul Eber wrote the text of that chorale just after his son has died, perhaps sharpening even more the idea of death in the Lutheran mind. The third movement of BWV 127, based on the fourth verse of the chorale, begins with the words:
The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body.
The sound world that Bach conjures up here is extraordinary; he scores it for solo soprano – a boy treble in those days, with all the associations of purity and innocence that go with it – and a florid oboe obbligato, against staccato chords from recorders and continuo.

Music two – start of BWV 127/3 – play 00’00” to 01’30” and fade

The staccato backdrop there makes the sustained word “ruht” – “rests” – really stand out. And the restful feeling of this exquisite aria is brought out even more by the fact that while this cantata for the most part is in the tonality of F, this aria is on the flat side of that key, in B flat. In other words, one degree deeper. The sound world of this aria makes me think of another moment in which Bach does something similar, and maybe this similarity strikes you too: an aria again for soprano which sets a flute obbligato over staccato accompaniment from two oboes da caccia, and no continuo whatsoever: the believer’s response to Pilate’s questioning in the Matthew Passion, Aus Liebe:

Music three – SMP: start of Aus Liebe – play 00’00” to 00’15” and fade

Bach composed and performed his Leipzig liturgical music in less than ideal circumstances. But one respect in which it seems he was well provided for was in the trumpet department. Indeed to play the trumpet and the kettle drums was a high-rank occupation which was jealously guarded by members of a guild. Bach always put the music for trumpets and kettle drums as and when he wrote it at the top of his manuscript paper, which may have been an indication of their social status.
Outstanding amongst the Stadtpfeifer who performed this role in Leipzig was Gottfried Reicha. He had his portrait painted by Haussmann who also later painted Bach’s famous portrait – another indication of status. Reicha often played the first trumpet parts in the first performances of many of Bach’s works, and in fact it seems that they were his undoing. While playing in an open-air performance of a congratulatory cantata by Bach in 1734 he was badly affected by the smoke of the flaming torches around him – so much so that he collapsed of a stroke and died in the street. So although I’ve been overcome by Bach’s cantatas many times, I haven’t yet paid the ultimate price like Gottfried Reicha…

Anyway, it must have been him that Bach had in mind to play the dramatic obbligato in the fourth movement of this cantata, an accompanied recitative for bass which depicts the Last Judgement. There are three dramatic sections framing two more reflective passages in which the continuo section imitate the bass and vice versa with a motto derived from the first phrase of the hymn – some text from it is also incorporated. In its original version the phrase reads:
Truly, truly I say to you … [he who keeps my word and believes in me … ] will not come before judgment and never taste death.”
I’m going to play the end of one of those passages moving back into the final Last Judgement section. I drew your attention to a parallel with the Matthew Passion earlier; the resemblance this time round is unmistakeable:

Music four – BWV 127 movt 4 – play 03’22” to end at 03’50”

The music in that passage is a carbon copy of one of the Matthew Passion’s most dramatic moments – the Sind Blitze, sind Donner double chorus. Jesus has been betrayed and captured, and his disciples are wondering out loud: “have lightning and thunder vanished in the clouds?” The Matthew Passion wasn’t first performed until Good Friday 1727, but this is one of the pieces of evidence that suggest or maybe even proves that Bach was already composing it at the start of 1725, with a view to performing it on Good Friday of that year.

Bach usually reserves the most complex music in his cantatas for the opening movement, and the musical elements at work in this one are so rich that I’ve left it to discuss last.
There are several layers at work here, and so I’m going to play the first few bars a couple of times, pointing out different details as we go. The first thing that will strike you is the texture. Over strings and continuo, we hear pairs of recorders and oboes in a wonderfully shrill combination:

Music five – BWV 127 movt 1 – play 00’00” to 00’30”

In the upper register there we heard the recorders introducing a figuration of dancing dotted semiquavers. That motif dances its way through every single bar of this opening movement.
The oboes meanwhile play a quaver figure F | F F E C |D E F which I’ve already introduced you to – it’s a sped-up version of the Herr Jesu Christ hymn which as I’ve said is the backbone of this cantata. It was common practise for Bach to double up the speed of the chorale phrases as a prelude to us hearing the main theme itself, and that’s what Bach is doing here; we will hear the hymn tune sung in long notes by the sopranos shortly.

For any normal conscientious Baroque composer that might be enough. The fascinating thing about Bach though is that in his work he consistently goes further than he needs to; and in BWV 127 he draws on not one but three chorale themes in that opening – in fact you’ve already heard them although you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The second is the Lutheran Chorale version of the Agnus Dei: Christe, du Lamm Gottes –
SING Christe, du Lamm Gottes theme: F G A A |B flat ¬¬– A –
… it’s first played by the upper strings (although very much in the background at the start of this recording), and appears two more times. And the third is much harder to spot – the continuo line quotes from the Passion chorale “Herzlich tut mich verlangen”, in a dotted version, from the sixth bar.
SING Passion chorale theme: G | C Bflat Aflat G| F—G

It might have been unconscious, or deliberate, but as it seems Bach was preparing his Matthew Passion at the time it’s a musical figure which would have been in his mind. If we accept it is a deliberate quotation, then just through these three chorales Bach is conveying a threefold picture of Christ as
1.) Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God
2.) the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world
And 3.) O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, a poignant picture of Jesus on the Cross.

Here’s the whole thing up to the point where the sopranos enter with the first line of the chorale – I’ll point out the Passion chorale quotations as they occur because they’re not easy to spot:

Music six – BWV 127 movt 1 – play 00’00” to 01’23”

That magnificent opening chorus will be the very first thing you hear in the concert tonight, and as an example of the richness of Bach’s imagination it could hardly be bettered. And it’s also a great example of how from the theological, the intellectual and the musical points of view, these cantatas are so worth getting to know. I spent 13 years of my life on my Bach cantata project and my love affair with this music isn’t over yet!
[ends]

me and Trevor Pinnock

It was a great pleasure to interview Trevor Pinnock recently for Linn Records about conducting, playing the harpsichord, and other matters musical.  Enjoy – and there’s another with conductor Robin Ticciati in the pipeline.

Music for Christmas at Leighton House 2015

This is us at Leighton House last week with another memorable festive concert: Clare McCaldin, Richard Edgar-Wilson and yours truly, with Juliet Edwards on piano – photo by Kevin Moran. Compliments of the season from all of us!

LHM Music for Christmas 9Dec2015 ©Kevin Moran (77)

Beethoven’s funeral

I’m summing up Beethoven’s career in 75 minutes for ACE Cultural Tours this afternoon. Between ten and thirty thousand people turned up to his funeral on 29th March 1827, and to hear a funeral oration written by the distinguished Franz Grillparzer – this contemporary painting is by Franz Stöber.Beethoven funeral Stober

thoughts on JS Bach’s St John Passion

This weekend is devoted to JS Bach’s St John Passion – we’re performing it tomorrow evening at St Michael and All Angels, Bath Road, London W4 1TT. So inevitably I’ve been reflecting on the essence of this extraordinary piece, and how best to do justice to the score. The St Matthew, which we performed as part of our long-running Bach project in February 2012, is the more expansive account of the Passion story – and for many Bach lovers it’s the preferred Passion of the two. So what does the St John have going for it? Well, it’s intensely dramatic; – there’s acres of Evangelical recitative, punctuated by stunning outbursts from the chorus, variously in the guises of chief priests, Jews and Roman soldiers. So key to getting it right will be the pacing of the narrative, which it seems to me should maintain its momentum right up to the moment of Jesus’s death on the Cross (no.31).

Leading us through the drama are the solo singers, or “concertists”, although they have more than just one role to play. The bass soloist for example has not only the words of Jesus to sing, but also the arias and choruses; – that much is clear from Bach’s original intentions in the original manuscript part. Quite a challenge for a solo singer to switch personas in this way, and even more so for the chorus to be an out-of control mob baying for Jesus to be crucified one moment, and grieving contemporary Christians the next (as in the transition from no 21d “Kreuzige!” and no 21f “Wir haben ein Gesetz” to the radiant chorale no 22 “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn.” But that doesn’t mean that we should duck the issue by asking soloists to sit out the chorus sections, or for chorales to be played rather than sung for the sake of dramatic convenience, as was the case in a recent Passion staging at the National Theatre (I really am not a fan of these). On the contrary, – this shift in perspectives between third and first person, and between the Passion story and the present, is one of the things that make this Passion narrative so startling.

If I’m emphasising the drama at the expense of the music here, that’s because it’s clear to me what should take priority. Everyone know what a supreme musical craftsman Bach was, but the standout feature of the St John Passion isn’t the music at all;– it’s the way he puts his astonishing musical skills entirely at the service of the Passion story. This is a gripping, at times terrifying, narrative -– for me the way Bach illuminates the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death is more vivid than any other musical work before or since.

Once again we’re raising money for an excellent local charity, the Upper Room. It would be great to see you at the performance.

 

Chiswick Book Festival – Idler Guide to Classical Music

On Sunday 13th September at 1:30pm, I’m talking to Sam Norman about my Idler Guide to Classical Music at the Chiswick Book Festival, St Michael & All Angels Church, Priory Avenue, London W4 1TX. There will be talking, listening, explaining, and playing – do come along! This blog entry, written for the Idler website a few months back, outlines what the book’s about:

Although I’ve been a professional musician and broadcaster for all of my adult life, most of my friends are Normal People who live in the Real World. It’s after having several conversations with them that I decided that my Introduction to Classical Music had to be written. What the book is seeking to do is to present the history of classical music in a way which would resonate with people who are engaged with the other art forms: reading novels, going to films, discussing architecture, and so on, but for whom classical music remains, well, a closed book. Rather than moving from great composer to great composer, I’m looking at four of the key eras of classical music: Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Early Twentieth Century, talking about the main developments and roles of music in each, before homing in on one work from each era and discussing it in detail.

People quite often say to me: “I listen to classical music to switch off; I don’t need to know anything about it.” That’s fair enough, and in a way I don’t blame them. But great classical music engages the head as much as the heart, and a little knowledge of context or makeup can greatly add to the emotional understanding of a piece of music. The Sanctus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass (1749) is a great example of this. At first hearing it’s a thrilling and majestic experience. But if we dig a little deeper, and find out that the number three permeates so much of the makeup of the music – it’s scored for three trumpets, three oboes, six voices and so on, and the number three dances around endlessly in the figurations of the voice parts – and realising that the threes are intimately connected with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, then our response to the music become so much deeper and richer.

Another Bach example, and one I examine in the book, is the C major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier (1722), also by Johann Sebastian Bach. It shows the opposite site of the composer: someone who loved the simple craft of composition, and had an almost geeky obsession with placing one note against another to create a wonderful piece of music out of limited means. This piece is entirely built on one repeated pattern: a spread-out chord, or arpeggio. There’s no melody, or rhythm, or even notated speed markings or indications of how loud or soft the music should be; all we have is that pattern, which gradually shifts across the tonal spectrum – creating tensions, resolving them, moving away from the home key and eventually returning to it. Two minutes later, Bach has exhausted all of the possibilities of this kernel of an idea. Musically, there’s nothing more to be said – which makes it for me a perfect little piece of music.

Perfection though isn’t always the point of music; sometimes it’s full of rough edges, violence and fragmentation, with disorder instead of order – this is the anti-classical side of classical music. Take Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps – the Rite of Spring (1913). It’s full of disorientating twists and turns, newly-minted chords and cliff-hanger endings. The aesthetic is different , but Stravinsky still puts the music together with incredible care and precision. This is just a different kind of masterpiece.

Bach B minor Mass reading list

On Saturday 18th April at the University of St Andrews I’m leading a study day on the Mass in B minor, focussing mainly on the Symbolum Nicenum. We’re playing and singing our way through all nine Symbolum Nicenum movements, analysing the music and exploring the background of this great work along the way. Here are some suggestions for further reading:

Cambridge Music Handbook Bach: Mass in B minor (John Butt)
Cambridge University Press: Exploring Bach’s B-minor Mass
Music in the Castle of Heaven – A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (John Eliot Gardiner)

And some useful links:

the autograph score online (click through to “2.1 Full Scores”);
an overview of the one per part debate;
Joshua Rifkin on CPE Bach’s rewrite of the Confiteor;
and the Bach Network UK site – links to lots of interesting articles and the latest scholarship.

Putney Music playlist

Tonight I’ve been invited down to Putney Music to talk about music and my take on it.  I can’t wait to play some great recordings and special moments – here are the ten pieces on my playlist:

1.) Dmitri Shostakovitch: Symphony no 5, finale

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai

2.) Thomas Tallis: O Nata Lux

BBC Singers, Bo Holten

3.) Jeremy Sams: Train Music, Restaurant Wander, Hotel Escape

(Le week-end, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

4.) Edward Elgar: Symphony no 2, Larghetto OR Rondo: Presto

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Hickox

5.) Kurt Masur interviewed by Sandy Burnett, BBC Radio 3, 250902

6.) Richard Strauss: Daphne, Mondlichtmusik

Renee Fleming, WDR Symphony Orchestra/Bychkov

7.) Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata BWV 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, opening movt

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner

8.) Johann Sebastian Bach: Matthew Passion BWV 244, Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand

Clare Wilkinson (alto), Dunedin Consort and Players, John Butt

9.) Wes Montgomery: Mister Walker

(The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, 1960)

10.) Gene Harris Quartet: The Song is Ended

(Listen Here, 1989)