The Bach Hour

Two Masterpieces From Altenburg

Saturday, May 14, 2011
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The Bach Hour this week features two performances that highlight the full range of color and power of an organ in Altenburg, Germany.  Built in 1739 by Heinrich Gottfried Trost for the Schloßkirche, or Castle Church, you can hear it in Gerhard Weinberger's performance of Bach's Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582.

To hear the program, click on "Listen" above.

Also on the program is the Cantata No. 146, "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen," in a performance from conductor John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimmage of 2000.  The soloists in that performance include Brigitte Geller, soprano, William Towers, alto, Mark Padmore, tenor, Julian Clarkson, bass.  They're joined by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with organist Silas John Standage.  Visit Emmanuel Music for a translation.

When Trost completed the organ, Bach was invited to give one the first performances on it, and an account from several years later gives us an idea of what impact that event had (from Christoph Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician):

For an organist, to yield to the singing congregation is better than to have it his way.  Only a few are able to direct the congregation as old Bach could do, who, on the great organ at Altenburg, played the Credo hymn ["Wir glauben all an einem Gott"] in D minor, but for the second stanza lifted the congregation to E-flat minor, and for the third one even up to E minor.  That, however, only a Bach and an organ in Altenburg could make happen.  This, all of us, are not, and have not.

Of course, magnificent though they may look and sound, 18th century organs aren't necessarily easy to work with, as Silas John Standage writes about his performance with Gardiner in the program notes for that recording:

It was a real thrill to play this wonderful instrument, but certainly not without problems ... [J]ust before the performance began it started to cipher - sounding the note 'F' without any key being pressed down.  The local organist was in the audience and he quickly set about trying to sort out the problem, but to no avail.  Luckily the cipher did not affect the solo stops I had chosen, so after some moments of panic and confusion (during which John Eliot accidentally got locked into the organ loft) the performance went ahead.  But it was an adrenaline-packed evening that I am not likely to forget.

(photos of Altenburg Castle Church and the Trost organ via ecv5 at Flickr under Creative Commons)

The Bach Experience

Friday, May 6, 2011
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Suzuki Conducts Cantata No. 42

Friday, April 29, 2011
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The Joy and Transcendence of Easter

Thursday, April 21, 2011
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Suzuki Conducts Bach

Thursday, April 21, 2011
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Masaaki Suzuki has, over the course of many years, established an approach to Bach's sacred music that combines scholarly thoughtfulness with a lyrical interpretive style that elucidates the relationship of the text and music. His dozens of recordings of Bach's cantatas with the ensemble he founded, Bach Collegium Japan, have engendered a wide following amongst audiences and critics.

Suzuki conducts his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut with Bach's St. John Passion in the final version by Bach, revised in 1749 in the year before his death.

The soloists include soprano Hana Blažíková, mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Danz, tenor Christoph Prégardien, and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann.

Here are excerpts from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's program notes, written by Helen M. Greenwald.  The complete notes and text translation are available from the BSO.

Traditional Holy Week observance includes the daily reading and/or musical performance of accounts in the four Canonic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—of the events in the last week of Jesus’s life. The term “Passion” refers specifically to the suffering of Jesus, and John’s version of it, read each year on Good Friday, ends at the burial after the crucifixion ... Bach’s St. John Passion is thus a text-driven work with a well-defined functional history...

... It is important to understand its two intersecting planes—the first, a narrative (recitatives and choruses) and the second, commentary and reflection (chorales and arias). The story is told by the Evangelist, and selected events are reenacted through dialogue between characters—Jesus, Pilate, the Girl, Peter, and the Servant—and the crowd...

... In 1749, when he conducted the St. John Passion at St. Thomas [right], his eyesight had been failing for quite some time. By 1747, he had already delegated some of his cantor’s responsibilities to his pupil and copyist, Johann Nathanael Bammler, for whom he later wrote a reference—the last known document in Bach’s own hand, dated April 12, 1749, just a week after his final performance of the St. John Passion.

A Cantata for Palm Sunday

Friday, April 15, 2011
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