BBC Proms 2017 – Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Lutheran cantatas by Bach

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Schütz Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43; Danket dem Herren, denn er ist freundlich, SWV 45 (all c1617)

J.S. Bach Cantata No.79, ‘Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild’ (1725); Cantata No.80, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (1716, revised 1720s-1735)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017 (late night)

After the earlier evening headiness of John AdamsNaïve and Sentimental Music from the Philharmonia, it was quite a stylistic shift to the night’s second Prom, which began with three canzonas / hymns of Heinrich Schütz, written some 400 years ago.

Yet as the ear gradually adjusted and the members of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists quickly found their level, it was clear we were listening to something quite special. Under the fastidious but loving direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, an old hand at these scores, Schütz’s own minimalism came to light, helping the transition from first Prom to second. The choir were carefully positioned and instrumental soloists stood where possible for their contributions, an effective technique that spotlit them for the audience but also ensured the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was keenly observed.

Though the Schütz was very good, the two J.S. Bach cantatas took this late night concert to the next level. First was Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, where the vocal soloists Amy Carson (soprano), Reginald Mobley (alto) and Robert Davies (bass) were particularly fine, and the small continuo* (*accompanying) section negotiated their tricky lines with deceptive ease.

The second cantata, Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, became the focus of the evening, Bach’s Lutheran cantata a cornerstone not just of his sacred compositions but of Baroque music and the Reformation in general. Gardiner took every opportunity to depict the ‘mighty fortress’, whether through the strength of the choral sound or the meaty orchestral textures, capped at the bottom end by the extraordinarily satisfying rasp on Stephen Saunders’ bass sackbut, an ancestor of the trombone. Brought to the front for the Prommers’ benefit, it was a wonderful thing to witness.

This was just the tip of the iceberg though. One of the great assets of the Monteverdi Choir is that its members are all potential soloists, making it a great team of individuals. Soprano Miriam Allan and bass Robert Davies dueted in the Aria and Chorale, and complemented each other very nicely, then tenor Hugo Hymas sang beautifully for the Recitative, while Mobley (above) once again impressed with his passionate and full-bodied tones in a duet with the tenor. The orchestra were once again on top form, though this time oboist Leo Duarte was keenly in focus, moving between the conventional wooden oboe, an oboe d’amore and an oboe di caccia (which looks rather like a banana!) with great dexterity and flair.

The chorus were impeccable with their diction and ensemble, and Bach’s music had that life-giving energy that comes across in successful performances such as this. Eliot Gardiner has written a whole book (Music In The Castle of Heaven) on his love of Bach’s music, and listening to his charges here was akin to standing on the turrets of that building, faces turned skywards. It really was that enlightening.

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms 2017 – John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music – Philharmonia / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Voices and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

This year’s Proms celebration of John Adams‘ 70th birthday moved on to some Naïve and Sentimental Music. Not my label, but the composer’s own – and a misleading one at that. The title implies a sketchily composed, throwaway fragment, but what we actually get is something very substantial, longer than many symphonies. The construction of the three sections making up the piece illustrate the ease with which the music of Adams expands to fill such dimensions, not something you could always say about the music of like-minded ‘minimalists’, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Where others of his ilk tend to work in smaller melodic units, Adams thinks nothing of spinning out a long, intense melody over several minutes, hanging like a long telegraph wire above the sun-drenched plains. Such an image came to my head as we listened to the second movement of three, Mother of the Man, where the guitar of Huw Davies sounded rather like the early music of Pat Metheny in its deceptively lazy traversal. The strings held fast, creating the wide expanses of which Copland would surely have been proud. The treble textures were especially rich, but when the dynamic dropped to a barely audible whisper on the violins, members of the audience were subconsciously leaning forward to follow developments in the music.

It helped that the conductor was also the dedicatee of Adams’ sizeable score, Esa-Pekka Salonen taking delivery on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999. Here he secured some outstanding playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra, who responded to the virtuoso demands of the music with impressive rhythmic impetus, intense focus and characterful phrasing. When the music gathered itself several times in the first movement, Naïve and Sentimental Music, the pacing and rhythms felt just right, with especially good work from harpists Heidi Krutzen and Stephanie Beck, not to mention percussionists Antoine Siguré, Scott Lumsdaine, Peter Fry, Stephen Burke, Tim Gunnell and Karen Hutt.

Towards the solemn close of Mother of the Man it was the brass bringing deeper shades to the forefront of the picture with exquisitely held chords. As Chain to the Rhythm hurried along the intensity built steadily and inexorably until it became nerve-shredding, the piece thundering along with gongs, bass drum, cymbals and massive timpani strokes giving it a mountainous perspective. We ended through the altitude of the violins, these massive orchestral sounds now a huge echo. It was a moving finish to a piece that is clearly underrated in Adams’ canon. Salonen clearly believes in it, and this audience did too.

A curious (but very interesting) first half began with Stravinsky’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her, a recomposition made to accompany the world premiere of the latter composer’s Canticum Sacrum in St Marks, Venice in 1956. This was an oddity of economical orchestration and sung text from a reduced choir. There was some quite tart colouring in the manner of Stravinsky’s later style, and his additions to the music of Bach added extra spice to the harmonies at unexpected points. An intriguing but puzzling arrangement, and one that threw the softer textures of Ravel’s Shéhérazade into relief.

This was no doubt intentional, for we were privy to a wonderful performance from French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (above). Shéhérazade is a magical song cycle when performed well, but here it transcended all expectations – in fact I don’t recall ever seeing a singer who gauged the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with quite the accuracy of Crebassa. Her direct communication with the audience was reinforced by the elegance and understated strength of her vocal delivery, a truly beautiful tone that caressed Ravel’s lines with clear love and affection.

The first song, Asie, held an exquisite tension as the travelling scene unfolded, while La flûte enchantée, the instrument itself beautifully played by Samuel Coles, thrilled with its orchestral colours and heady textures. L’indifférent was a little more mischievous, and again the exquisite tones and textures were in full accord with the very best Ravel performances.

Crebassa is most definitely an artist for the future, and her blend and rapport with the Philharmonia was something to behold. The reverent string textures and typically pinpoint orchestration were viewed through Salonen’s technicolour lens, but the team brought something very special to Klingor’s text. If you get the chance to hear the broadcast, do so as soon as you can. You will hear one of the best young singers in classical music right now!

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Steve Hodges will give his verdict on the John Adams Prom. Coming shortly!

On record: Kyung Wha Chung – Bach: Sonatas & Partitas (Warner Classics)

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1001-1006

Kyung Wha Chung (violin)

Summary

After 15 years out of the recording studio and a similar absence from concert halls in the West, Kyung Wha Chung begins a new chapter of a career dating back almost five decades with this first integral take on the Sonatas and Partitas for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.

What’s the music like?

Written around 1720, when Bach was attached to the court of Anhalt-Köthen (a period giving rise to the many of his most important orchestral and instrumental works), these Sonatas and Partitas are to the violin what The Well-Tempered Clavier is to the keyboard.

They set a level of compositional and artistic achievement seldom equalled in almost three centuries. The alternation between forms enables Bach to pursue a clear-cut while never inflexible trajectory, with the formal clarity of the sonatas thrown into purposeful relief by the more diverse yet no less integrated layout of the partitas. Allied to this is an expressive range which extends from the poise and vigour of those movements adhering to dance measures, to the cumulative power of those appropriating more abstract models in proto-symphonic terms.

Recorded around the time of her 68th birthday, these accounts confirm that time spent out of the limelight has been to the benefit of Chung’s interpretative insight and conviction. No-one who comes to these pieces for the first time could doubt the intensity of her commitment, and while her playing betrays occasional signs of tentativeness or imprecision, there is never any sense of her technique being inadequate for this music (as, for instance, was that of Mstislav Rostropovich when he recorded Bach’s Cello Suites towards the end of his seventh decade).

Nor is there any doubt that these recordings are suited to the concentrated listening necessary for taking in this music at a single, two-and-a-quarter-hour sitting. Those who might wish to sample individual movements should head to the wistful Siciliana from the First Sonata, the incisive Corrente of the First Partita, the winsome Andante from the Second Sonata, or the nonchalant Gavotte en rondeau of the Third Partita. These interpretations are at their best in the two most imposing works: hence the Second Partita, its closing Ciaccona rendered with implacable momentum; and the Third Sonata, its imposing Fuga rendered with unflagging energy. Comparison with Chung’s 1973 recordings (Decca) confirms that any falling-off of technique is more than outweighed by the sheer intellectual control here evinced throughout.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that Chung’s approach is always commensurate to the stature of the music at hand. Music which, of course, can take a variety of interpretations – though the present set is notable for the skill with which Chung navigates between the poles of authenticity and that more subjective approach often associated with earlier generations.

The point remains that she secures a cohesion and consistency across all six of these endlessly diverse pieces as is achieved by precious few exponents, and this can be felt to override all other considerations.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The two discs are logically presented as a chronological sequence, with succinctly informative booklet notes from Julian Haylock and a brief statement of intent from Chung. Among recent accounts, hers needs to be heard for its formal rigour and expressive insight.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

Wigmore Mondays – Marie-Elisabeth Hecker & Martin Helmchen

hecker-helmchen

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello) & Martin Helmchen (piano)

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.3 in G minor, BWV1029 (late 1730s-early 1740s) (14 minutes)

Stravinsky Suite Italienne (arr. Piatigorsky) (1932/33) (20 minutes)

Brahms Cello Sonata no.1 in E minor Op.38 (1862-5) (23 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November

Arcana’s commentary

Pairing Bach with Brahms was a smart move for this concert.

When Bach was writing for the viola da gamba – essentially an early form of cello with no spike and sometimes five strings! – he was one of the first to recognise its potential as a treble instrument as well as a bass.

To that end the three sonatas he published for viola da gamba and ‘continuo’ – which in this case would normally mean a harpsichord. The pieces transcribe well for modern cello and piano though, as can be heard from 1:35 on the broadcast. It took a little while for Marie-Elisabeth Hecker to settle her tone and intonation in this performance, but once evened out the performance is notable for its clarity and expression at the higher end of the cello. This becomes especially obvious in the Adagio slow movement (from 7:00), which takes the form of an aria. The last movement (12:22) is like a fugue, with its question and answer phrases.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne comes from a period in his compositional life where he was looking back to the music of classical and baroque times, taking that music as inspiration, and remoulding it into something that sounded much more modern. For his ballet Pulcinella he took the music of Pergolesi (1710-1736) – or a contemporary, as was recently suggested – and gave it new musical clothes, with spiced-up harmonies and colourful orchestration. Several movements from Pulcinella were reworked for violin and piano to become the Suite Italienne, after which point the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky realised with a few more tweaks he could expand the repertoire of his own instrument.

This was done with Stravinsky’s approval, and the results – as you can hear from this concert – are invigorating and humourous. The nip and tuck between cello and piano is brilliantly caught in the Tarantella (29:49) but in truth all the movements carry the same levels of excitement – running through a sprightly Introduzione (17:33), Hecker’s graceful Serenata (20:00), a surprisingly vigorous Aria (23:45), a sombre and slow Minuetto that grows in stature (32:30) before leading into the vivacious Finale (34:48)

The Brahms (beginning at 39:25) is a piece that also looks back for its inspiration – to Bach, who inspires the finale (55:29) and perhaps to classical composers for the second movement minuet (50:00)

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen give a superb and very fluent performance of this work, getting the balance between cello and the active piano part just right. The similarities between Brahms and Bach are clearest in the two composers’ use of counterpoint – that is a number of different melodies being played simultaneously or in complement to each other.

The flow of melodies in the first movement is unbroken and rather beautiful, especially when the piano briefly switches to a major key (42:13) Elsewhere the mood is darkly passionate and powerfully played.

The Minuet has an attractive poise, enjoying the relative mystery of its central section (from 51:43) while the finale has a steely sound to its theme from the piano (55:29) and the cello’s response (55:37) – all set out as a fugue, developing considerable momentum through to the end, which is straight faced but roundly optimistic at the same time.

This was a brilliantly played account of the Brahms, ideally balanced and communicating the composer’s rich abundance of melodies.

Further listening

The Spotify playlist below – Looking back to move forward – examines more of Brahms and Stravinsky’s use of techniques of the past to shape their own music of the future. You can also hear Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen in their new disc of the Brahms Cello Sonatas.

by Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Lars Vogt plays the Bach Goldberg Variations

lars-vogt

Lars Vogt (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 6 June 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07dkdt8

Available until 4 July

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1742) (55 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, Lars Vogt has recorded the Goldberg Variations which can be heard here:

About the music

The Goldberg Variations have an intriguing genesis. The generally accepted account is that they were written by Bach for performance by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who needed something to play to pass the time when his master, Count Keyserlingk – the Russian ambassador to the court of Dresden – was unable to sleep.

Bach wrote the variations for him and published them in 1742, though their lack of a dedication coupled with a few other factors have led some to doubt their authenticity as a work for Goldberg.

That is a minor aside, though, for the Goldberg Variations are one of the pinnacles in keyboard music. Lasting almost an hour, they are a huge set of variations on an Aria, which is a three-minute, self-contained unit in itself. Throughout the duration Bach reaches profound emotional depths, especially in the minor key variations, while in the more exuberant fast music he explores complex but extremely positive music. They are a tour de force for any keyboard player, and are perhaps the work by which the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is best remembered.

Performance verdict

Lars Vogt clearly has a great deal of admiration and affection for this music, for this was a spellbinding performance of one of the great cornerstones of the keyboard repertoire. The Goldbergs make great demands on the versatility of an artist, exposing any limitations in their technique – but where Vogt was concerned, there did not appear to be any.

It was helpful that he paused after some of the bigger variations, allowing Bach’s revelations in the minor key in particular to sink in. Others he linked very closely together, so that there was a natural ebb and flow between the fast music and the slow.

This was an incredibly assured performance, after which Vogt simply raised the music itself to the audience – a gesture that spoke volumes for the stature in which the work continues to be held.

What should I listen out for?

1:23 – the Aria, which is a slow Sarabande. It is heavily ornamented – by which it is meant the right hand of the piano decorates its melodies. Yet there is a sense of time standing still as Bach announces the main theme for his variations.

5:02 – Vogt moves straight into the lively Variation 1, where Bach builds up a fluid momentum.

5:54 – the bright Variation 2, a little quieter and beautifully poised with discussion of the melodies between both hands (or ‘counterpoint’ as it is commonly known!)

6:41 – Variation 3, a Canon – where one part shadows the other throughout. Again Bach gives this a totally natural appearance, in a lilting triple time.

8:32 – the more rigid Variation 4.

9:34 – the quickfire Variation 5, with a rapid figuration of semiquavers as the music hurtles forwards.

10:17 – Variation 6, the second Canon in the variations and one that explores some advanced harmonic movements.

11:28 – a detached profile to the melody of Variation 7, with a detached and staccato nature that gives it a French flavour.

12:14 – the busy eighth variation brings the two hands close together on the keyboard, and streams forward, leading straight into…

13:08 – the ninth variation, a slower, poised affair, and the third of Bach’s Canons.

14:43 – Variation 10, a ‘fughetta’ – by which you can hear each part entering individually with Bach’s new theme. The counterpoint builds in a compact statement.

15:28 – Variation 11 is quicker, and tricky to execute.

16:24 – Variation 12, and Bach’s fourth canon, is a stately and expansive affair.

19:24 – Variation 13 is a Sarabande, the first to fully evoke the spirit of the Aria and to behave in a similar, decorated way.

21:38 – the reverie is burst by Variation 14, a brisk affair that has some striking, jumpy rhythms in the right hand. Legendary pianist Glenn Gould compared this variation to Scarlatti.

22:38 – Variation 15, the fifth canon. It has some adventurous chord progressions, moving mysteriously through the minor key as it becomes progressively more anguished. Gould says this would not be out of place in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as a genuine piece of mourning. A period of silence at the end only heightens the impact.

26:18 – the flavour of a French Ouverture runs through Variation 16, which has a ceremonial air, with some florid statements from both hands. It opens out into a faster section.

28:57 – a virtuosic Variation 17

29:56 – the dance returns for Variation 18, which is another canon, the parts dancing in a calculated but surprisingly breezy near-unison.

31:19 – Variation 19, and Bach still as prodigiously inventive as he was at the beginning. This is a relatively gentle, triple time dance.

31:58 – Variation 20 quickens the pace again, with quick interaction between the hands.

32:58 – for the seventh canon, Variation 21, Bach moves back to the minor key and a solemn exchange of melodies.

35:23 – back to the major key for 22, where Bach often fills out the texture to four parts.

36:05 – a bright Variation 23, where the hands are higher up the keyboard, exchanging some florid ideas.

36:59 – another canon, the eighth, for Variation 24, a triple time dance with an attractive lilt.

39:47 – the third and last minor key variation, 25, is a darker turn after the positivity of the previous one. It is also a lot slower, with time seemingly coming to a halt towards the end of Bach’s discourse. Because of its emotional impact it has been described as ‘the black pearl’ of the set.

43:23 – after the depths of the minor key, Variation 26 sounds like a frivolous thought, with a burbling idea exchanged between the two hands.

44:27 – Variation 27, a little stern in its set canon but with a strong air of positivity.

46:29 – Variation 28 is higher up the keyboard, with repeated figures that Bach moves around a harmonic sequence. There is a lot of hand crossing for the pianist here.

48:13 – in Variation 29 the tempo is still quick and the hands stay close together, though the right one does run off alone at times.

50:16 – Variation 30, the last one, is given the title of Quodlibet, a kind of improvised work. Here Bach really lets his invention go, using the melodies of a couple of folksongs as he strays far from the original.

52:01 – a note for note repeat for the Aria from the start, closing the entire Goldberg Variations.

Further listening

Rather than another set of variations, the recommended further listening is for a set of shorter Bach pieces played on the piano. These can be heard in a stylish album from Alexandre Tharaud, who has incidentally also recorded the Goldberg Variations. Here he focuses on some of Bach’s works with an Italian flavour, including the Italian Concerto among others: