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It is part of our lives in a way that we cannot wake up in the morning and go through life without music and without having this essential aspect of it, that music means just as much as eating and drinking or living.”  — János Starker (July 5, 1924 – April 28, 2013)

This is part 3 of a series of posts forming a “collector’s guide” primarily focusing on answering the question “I have the Bach Complete Edition, what other Bach-related recordings might I want to get?”  Please see the introduction to the series for more background information, the guide to chamber music, and the guide to orchestral music if you are interested.  This installment will discuss recordings of Bach’s keyboard music including both the works for harpsichord and organ.

On Harpsichord

I find most of the harpsichord works in the 2010 BCE to be very well performed although the recording quality can vary somewhat. The only pieces that I think most people will want to replace are the French Suites (and the Well-tempered Clavier if you have an earlier version of the BCE without Pieter-Jan Belder’s version).  I am considering getting one of these two recordings:

Pieter-Jan Belder – French Suites, Suites BWV 818-9

Gustav Leonhardt – French Suites, Inventions, etc. (4 CDs)

The Belder recording includes two extra suites that are already a part of the BCE.  (One has to wonder why Brilliant Classics did not include Belder’s set of the French Suites in the BCE too — oh well!)

In general, if you are looking for more harpsichord (or organ) recordings of Bach, Gustav Leonhardt’s enormous legacy is well worth exploring. 1   His playing is always sensitive and thoughtful.  The only caveat is that over his long career, the sonic quality of his recordings has varied quite a lot: later recordings seem more likely to be better but not always!  I would try to hear samples of any recordings before purchasing.

I don’t have a lot of other artists playing Bach on the harpsichord but I can also recommend Trevor Pinnock and Christiane Jaccottet as worth checking out.

On Piano

In the realm of Bach piano recordings, the name of Glenn Gould looms large.  I will admit that the idiosyncratic interpretations of Gould will not please everyone, but his French Suites and English Suites were among the first Bach recordings I knew and they remain favorites for me.  Gould’s technical prowess and clarity of line are legendary as is the fact that he frequently “accompanied” himself by singing while he played.  Some of his recordings have other sonic problems too like the loud piano action in the Inventions and distortion in the live recording of the Sinfonias (Moscow, 1957).  If his quirks and the sometimes poor sound don’t bother you, then I wholeheartedly recommend all of Gould’s studio recordings of Bach’s “solo piano” music.  And it is well worth hearing the pieces that he recorded more than once (such as the Goldberg Variations and a few of the works from the WTC).  Each interpretation is so unique that I wish he had rerecorded more of Bach’s work.

Since Sony repackages Gould’s CDs once or twice a decade, it may take some research to find the best set of discs for yourself.  If you are a newbie, you may consider getting everything at once with the Glenn Gould Complete Bach Collection on 38 CDs and 6 DVDs.  However, I’d like to point out that in this release, Sony arranges the material with one original LP per CD, so more of the discs are under 40 minutes than in some of the more compact sets that can be found.  Here again are some of the best Gould collections (be sure to cross-check other reissues for the best price!):

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 and 1981

Glenn Gould – French Suites and English Suites

Glenn Gould – The Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and II

Glenn Gould – Partitas, Preludes and Fugues, Art of Fugue, etc.

Glenn Gould Complete Bach Collection

Of course there is no shortage of pianists who play Bach and your tastes may be much different than mine.  Angela Hewitt and András Schiff have both made names for themselves playing Bach on the piano and they may offer good alternatives to Gould.  Although I have only heard samples of their work, I think that they are both on the conservative side of the various performance issues.  I am considering purchasing Hewitt’s Couperin albums since she seems to be one of the very few pianists to pay attention to that composer.  There are reasonably-priced box sets of both Hewitt’s and Schiff’s Bach recordings:

Angela Hewitt – Keyboard Works (15 CDs)

András Schiff – Solo Keyboard Works (12 CDs)

On Organ

As far as organ goes, there are way too many good recordings and I have samplings of quite a few artists.  I think the Hans Fagius set in the BCE is likely to be among the “best” Bach organ traversals and it is nearly complete, obviating any need for most people to buy more Bach organ recordings.  The only album that really stands out as unique in this field and worth getting in addition to any complete set is this Biggs album played simultaneously on the four “antiphonal” organs of the Cathedral of Freiburg:

E. Power Biggs – The Four Great Toccatas

If you are an organ enthusiast too and want more Bach organ then I would also highly recommend artists like Marie-Claire Alain, Gustav Leonhardt, Lionel Rogg, and Simon Preston.  Marie-Claire Alain in particular was an amazing and scholarly Bach interpreter and she recorded the complete organ works three times.  Marie-Claire Alain passed away on February 26, 2013.

With the exception of the Lionel Rogg set, I haven’t heard the following recordings in their entireties but I have selections from some of them and I am considering buying the box sets to complete my collection.

Marie-Claire Alain – Complete Organ Works (1990s digital recordings)

Marie-Claire Alain – Complete Organ Works (1978-80 analog recordings)

Marie-Claire Alain – The Art of Fugue

Lionel Rogg – The Organ Works (12 CDs but incomplete)

Simon Preston – The Organ Works

Finally, I have mentioned before that James Kibbie has recorded a very complete and very well-performed set of Bach’s organ works on historical instruments and released them for free on the Block M Records website.  The website has pictures and specifications for each organ and complete registrations for every piece!  This is truly a generous gift and an excellent resource for all organ students and Bach lovers.

James Kibbie – Bach Organ Works (free downloads)

Well, it seems I had quite a bit more to say about keyboard recordings than I thought!  More is to come in this series but I may talk about some other things first.  I’m sure I’ve provided enough to chew on for a while anyways. :)

Notes:

  1. In fact, you may be interested to check out the several large Leonhardt box sets that are available from Sony, Das Alte Werk/Teldec, and DHM.  I have the Teldec set and while the 8 discs of Bach are a mixed bag (sonically), the other 13 discs contain a wonderful & large selection of other Baroque composers.

This is part 2 of a series of posts forming a “collector’s guide” primarily focusing on answering the question “I have the Bach Complete Edition, what other Bach-related recordings might I want to get?”  Please see the introduction to the series for more background information and the guide to chamber music if you are interested.  This installment will discuss recordings of Bach’s “orchestral music” which I define here as the concertos (BWV 1041-1065) and four ouverture suites (BWV 1066-1069) although I don’t really have any recommendations for the latter.

Violin Concertos

If you read my guide to Bach chamber music recordings then this next recommendation will come as no surprise.  Rachel Podger released a recording in Oct. 2010 of Bach’s violin concertos and I having been intending to review this amazing album ever since.  So, I am going to indulge in a lengthy description of this one.

Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque – Violin Concertos

Rachel Podger, besides being an excellent violinist, is also a very talented director.  Her ensemble, Brecon Baroque, could be the tightest group of classical performers I’ve heard.  If you don’t believe me, just listen to their crisp marcato on the first three chords of the Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042.  And they generally maintain this precision despite the brisk tempos of most of the Allegros.  The final movement of BWV 1042 really swings and the final allegro of the Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, gallops along at quite a fast clip.  Throughout, Podger’s solo playing is light and joyful and, just as in her recording of Bach’s solo violin music, her playing comes very near to technical perfection (especially intonation).  The entire ensemble has the feel of a chamber group as there is only one performer per part except in the continuo.  The group’s dynamics are carefully rehearsed and full of subtle crescendi and decrescendi, although they occasionally border on too subtle, disappointing a little in climactic passages. In addition to the two canonical violin concerti, this album also includes “reconstructions” of violin concertos based on Bach’s harpsichord concerti, specifically BWV 1055 and 1056.  These pieces are wonderful in this form too and in fact the only real “flaw” of this recording is that they didn’t record more!  I would have loved to hear them play the double concerto (BWV 1043) or a reconstructed BWV 1052 for violin.  One can only hope for a follow-up.

Before I found Podger’s album, my favorite recording of the violin concertos from among the several I’d heard was by Isaac Stern.  I still enjoy these performances but I have a somewhat different perspective on them now.  Stern recorded each concerto with a different orchestra: the London Symphony Orchestra on BWV 1041, English Chamber Orchestra on BWV 1042, and a live recording of the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, with Itzhak Perlman and the New York Philharmonic.  These are not “period” performances — there is more vibrato, the strings are much “thicker”, etc.  These aspects are not necessarily bad, however, the intonation and timing of the ensembles can be kind of annoying at times.  Even Stern’s intonation is noticeably worse than Podger’s although I admit that I didn’t notice this fact until after I heard her playing.  What I still really like about this album though are the very expressive performances: Stern injects a lot of feeling into his solos.  The duet with Perlman is still my favorite recording of the double concerto (although admittedly I haven’t heard a lot of versions of that one).  These recordings are available on two different CDs depending on whether you want a Trio Sonata (with Jean-Pierre Rampal) or the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060r as your “extra tracks”:

Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman – Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043; Trio Sonata, BWV 1038

Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman – Violin Concertos, BWV 1041-1043, 1060r

Keyboard Concertos and Reconstructions

I find the performances of the harpsichord concertos in the BCE to generally be quite satisfying.  So I haven’t been looking for other recordings of these concertos played on harpsichords.  It can be nice to have some of them played on piano though.  There are a lot of choices for piano versions and I don’t have any strong recommendations for which performers to get.  I have the Glenn Gould set and his playing is very lyrical at times.  But the Columbia Symphony Orchestra is maybe not the best complement to his style and Gould did not record any of the concertos with multiple soloists.  So, someday, I may consider getting another set —perhaps the one by Andras Schiff or maybe Angela Hewitt.

What has seemed more interesting to me is to collect some of the “reconstructions” of Bach concertos for violin, oboe, etc., that are based either on the keyboard concertos or from material in the cantatas.  In addition to the Podger album above, I have found the recording of oboe concerti reconstructions by Heinz Holliger quite enjoyable.  I’m not sure, but I think he plays a modern oboe on two of them and an oboe d’amore on the other.  Other albums of “Bach oboe concertos” often contain different combinations of pieces.

Heinz Holliger – The Baroque Oboe (3 CDs of music by Bach, Telemann, Marcello, et al.)

Brandenburg Concertos

There are so many recordings of the Brandenburgs that I don’t have any idea which are the “best”.  I received the following some years ago and have been very happy with them:

Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

These performances by the Boston Baroque are lively and exciting and since they are on Telarc, the sound quality is very clear.

The next part of this series will cover music for keyboard instruments after which I will try to tackle the complicated subject of finding ideal recordings of Bach’s sacred music.

This will be part 1 of a series of posts forming a “collector’s guide” primarily focusing on answering the question “I have the BCE, what other Bach-related recordings might I want to get?”  Please see the introduction to the series for more background information.

Many of Bach’s instrumental works have been familiar to me for 20 or more years.  Today, I will start with the chamber music.  To answer Gary’s question, I am going to discuss a number of my favorite recordings and a few that I have been considering purchasing.

Violin music

Bach’s surviving body of chamber music is small, but there are a lot of recordings from which to choose.  A few years ago while I was looking for a recording of Bach’s solo violin pieces, I listened to samples of more than 20 artists on Amazon.  I was surprised at how many famous “virtuoso” violinists seemed unable to play these pieces either in tune or without harsh bowing sounds.  It was relatively easy for me to pick a recording because only one of them really stood out as excellent.  In my opinion, Rachel Podger’s tone, intonation, and interpretation are unmatched.  John Holloway’s recording also deserves mention as the only other one I found truly good.  But I decided that I preferred the more intimate sound of Podger’s CDs to the rather reverberant acoustic of Holloway’s.

Once I had settled that, it seemed like a no-brainer to get Rachel Podger’s recording of the violin sonatas with Trevor Pinnock at the same time.  Both of these albums are on period instruments and have been among my most-played ever since.

Rachel Podger – Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo

Rachel Podger, Trevor Pinnock – Complete Sonatas for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord

The second of these recordings includes BWV 1021, 1023, and 1019a.  For a recording on modern instruments of just the six violin sonatas BWV 1014-1019, I really enjoy the lively interplay of Jaime Laredo and Glenn Gould.  One release of this recording also includes Leonard Rose and Gould playing the Gamba Sonatas.

Jaime Laredo, Leonard Rose, Glenn Gould – Violin Sonatas, BWV 1014-1019; Viola da Gamba Sonatas, BWV 1027-1029

For probably 20 years now, one of my favorite albums has been

Anner Bylsma – Violoncello Piccolo

which is entirely transcriptions of Bach’s solo violin & flute music for the higher-pitched cousin of the cello.  This CD includes BWV 1006, 1013, and 1003.  It is a really beautiful and relaxing album!

Cello and Gamba music

My wife and I are a little obsessed with the cello suites.  We have several great recordings in addition to Jaap ter Linden’s (in the BCE) which I really enjoy.  You really can’t go wrong, in my opinion, with either of the Janos Starker recordings below.  His playing is always tasteful, expressive, and never overly-romantic.  The older recording has somewhat faster tempos and left out more of the repeats to fit onto LPs.  Today, it is packaged with two of the Gamba Sonatas.  You have to pick up another disc to get the third Gamba Sonata played by Starker.  While I find some of the Italian sonatas on that album boring, it think it is worth it for the Bach tracks.

Janos Starker – Suites for Solo Cello (1997 recording)

Janos Starker, György Sebök – Six Cello Suites; Cello Sonatas, BWV 1027-1028 (1960s recordings on modern instruments)

Janos Starker plays Boccherini, Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Locatelli, Valentini (with BWV 1029)

Edgar Meyer’s virtuosity in this recording is pretty amazing and the occasional extra depth that the string bass adds to these pieces is stirring.

Edgar Meyer – Unaccompanied Cello Suites Performed on Double Bass

Based on my affection for the Bylsma album above plus samples I’ve heard, I am fairly certain that his recordings of the Cello Suites are excellent, exciting, and “historically informed”.  I would like to hear the suites on viola too, so I am considering getting the following:

Maxim Rysanov – Cello Suites Nos. 1, 4 , 5 (on viola)

Anner Bylsma (1979 recordings):  Disc 1Disc 2

Anner Bylsma (1992 recordings)

As far as period recordings of the sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord go, I am quite happy with the performances of John Dornenburg and Malcolm Proud in the BCE.

Lute, Flute, and missing pieces

I am even more pleased with the BCE recordings of the solo lute music by Jakob Lindberg and the flute sonatas and two trio sonatas (BWV 1038 & 1039) played by Jed Wentz, Michael Borgstede, and friends (also available separately).

My only disappointment with the last of these is that two of the flute sonatas that have been traditionally associated with Bach (BWV 1031 & 1033) are not included.  Yes, you can see from the list of Bach’s works on Wikipedia that these two sonatas are sometimes attributed to C.P.E. Bach.  I don’t know all of the details 1 but some scholars seem to accept the attributions to J.S. Bach (and Davitt Moroney has argued partially in favor of them).  Regardless, these flute sonatas along with another sonata for violin or flute (BWV 1020) which is missing from the BCE are delightful pieces that deserve to be in the library of any Bach lover.  One easy way to get all three is to purchase Bach Flute Sonatas, Vol. 2 by Janet See, Davitt Moroney, and Mary Springfels.  I enjoy this CD very much but I know that there are other recordings of BWV 1031 and 1033 worth looking at.

If you have the BCE, you may have noticed several other chamber pieces from the BWV catalog that are not included.  Several of these are most likely not by Bach but the Trio in F major, BWV 1040 2 is authentic and the Suite BWV 1025 and Fugue BWV 1026 (both for violin with harpsichord) may be.  Recordings of all of these pieces seem scarce and I have not yet found any good recommendations.  I may discuss them further when I’ve had time to do more research.

Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue

Once again, I am very satisfied with both recordings of the Musical Offering that come in the 2010 Bach Complete Edition.  There are probably lots of good recordings of the MO.  I have one by Gustav Leonhardt with the three Kuijken brothers (et al.) that is also rather nice.

Gustav Leonhardt et al. – Musical Offering

I am including The Art of Fugue here because, in my opinion, an ideal rendition would be performed using a variety of instruments with one per part.  I have not found a “perfect” version yet, but I will mention a few possibilities that I find interesting.  The first is a recording that I do own in which the entire work is played by a recorder quartet. 3  I promise that it is better than it sounds! ;)

Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet – The Art of Fugue

I’ve recently become quite passionate about music for two or more viols, so this recording made by Fretwork is intriguing to me.

Fretwork – The Art of Fugue

To be honest, I find the Art of Fugue a little challenging to listen to all the way thru in one sitting, especially if the instrumentation doesn’t change.  So these two recordings — the first on period instruments, the second on modern — which score the Contrapuncti for different ensembles may be just what I’m looking for:

Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin – The Art of Fugue

Heribert Breuer, Berliner Bach Akademie – The Art of Fugue

Finally, I want to point out an excellent web site by Jeffrey C. Hall for information on the Art of Fugue that includes some very enjoyable synthesized renditions.

Flagmusic – The Art of Fugue (web site & recording)

Well, that’s it for this installment!  (I hope this is enough information ;))  The next part of my guide will take a look at some of my favorite Bach orchestral recordings.

Notes:

  1. Both works were left out of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe but both apparently exist in manuscripts in C.P.E.’s hand attributing them to his father.  Nevertheless, the bass lines are considered uncharacteristic for J.S. Bach.
  2. This single trio movement is related to a piece included in the BCE as it is a different scoring of the unusual instrumental section that concludes the aria “Mein gläubiges Herze” from Cantata no. 68.
  3. I fell in love with the bass recorder when I played one for a while in college.

Happy Bach’s Birthday to everyone!

I find it fascinating that Bach was born so close to/on the date that is now the spring equinox.  Even though this was not true in the Germany of 1685 and some consider Bach’s birthday now to fall on March 31st (see the head of the Wikipedia article on Bach and the discussion of old style vs. new style dates), I still find it to be an enticing idea that adds to the “mythology” of this man who in many ways produced the “first green shoots” of common practice period music.

I started off my day listening to the glorious Magnificat in E-flat, BWV 243a (Philippe Herreweghe conducting Collegium Vocale Gent) and then spent more than an hour playing a few preludes and fugues from Book 1 of the Well-tempered Clavier.  Probably my favorite piece in this set is the profound Prelude no. 7 in E-flat major, BWV 852:1.  This is one of Bach’s later examples of the toccata form and with the concision and coherence of this movement, he seems to be attempting to make a “final statement” on the matter.  The opening “improvisatory” material is very tightly constructed from a theme that will become central again later on.  The following chorale section begins like a very concise stile antico fugue on a simple but very satisfying theme that rises a fourth and then slowly falls back down to its original resting point.  This theme is transformed to include two interlocking, rising fourths in the following section which is perhaps the most sublime double fugue I’ve heard.  In it, Bach combines the themes from the first two sections of the toccata and continues to layer them over top of each other, again and again, in what seems to me a nearly continuous stretto until the end of the piece.  And throughout it all, he maintains interweaving voices with soaring melodies and harmonies that instill a deep longing in one’s heart until finally the piece arrives at a conclusion like a vision of an eternal and transcendent rest.

One of the other things I really love about that Prelude and Fugue is that Bach places such an amazing fugue in the Prelude.  Another wonderful example of this practice is the Prelude and Fugue, BWV 552 for organ that forms the bookends of Clavierübung III.  This piece also happens to be in E-flat major (by chance?) and the first theme of the triple fugue that is its second movement bears a strong resemblance to the stile antico theme of the BWV 852:1 double fugue, sharing a pair of interlocking, rising fourths.  (I can even almost imagine that the countersubject of BWV 552 is a faint echo of the other theme from BWV 852).  But back to the Prelude of BWV 552, which in this case is in the form of a massive French Ouverture.  The organo pleno lends a majesty to the slow section of this ouverture that in my opinion exceeds that of most other examples of the form.  And naturally the middle section is another masterful “fugue within a Prelude”.  The theme of this fugue enters accompanied by its countersubject which is reminiscent of the simultaneous exposition of the double fugue in BWV 852:1.

Was Bach thinking of the earlier Prelude and Fugue in E-flat from WTC1 while he was writing the one in Clavierübung III?  I doubt we will ever know.  In my mind at least, these two pieces share a semblance of method and inspiration.

The Brilliant Classics Bach Complete Edition contains a wealth of material for anyone interested in Bach.  And I am still busy listening to and learning about Bach’s music through the BCE.  But for those like myself for whom Bach is a true obsession, I am not sure there is a state of having “too much Bach.”  So, before I ever finished listening to the BCE, I began assessing what music by Bach I was still missing and which pieces I would want “better” recordings of.  I also asked myself “are there any other composers whose music will excite me as much as Bach?”

To answer these questions, I have found myself searching for music in roughly five categories:

  1. Authentic pieces by J.S. Bach that were left out of the BCE,
  2. Doubtful or spurious pieces from the BWV catalog not in the BCE or my collection yet,
  3. Important Bach works of which I wanted additional recordings,
  4. Interesting transcriptions of Bach’s music, and
  5. “New” music by other composers that I hoped would be like Bach.

I have been wanting to talk about many of the recordings that I have found and loved in the past few years.  And I thought an interesting addition to this site might be a modest guide for Bach collectors with a particular focus on answering the question “I have the BCE, what other Bach-related recordings might I want to get?”  Conveniently, Gary asked the following question recently in a comment on my BCE page:

I was interested to know what other Bach CD’s do you currently have or thinking of getting in the future?

So, that is where I will start.  The first installment of my guide (to be posted soon) will survey many of the other Bach recordings that I love which feature music that is in the Bach Complete Edition (#3 above), but which I feel are worth owning even if you already have other recordings of those pieces.

Today is the second anniversary of the date when I started the ThornyKoanz.net blog.  Therefore, it seems like an appropriate time to try to resuscitate it (assuming there isn’t permanent brain damage from the long lack of oxygen).

What have I been doing since my last post?  Lots of things I suppose.  Mostly, collecting, listening to, and learning about lots of new music.  I finished listening to the entire Bach Complete Edition within 5 months (so, May 2011).  Not too long afterwards, I began searching for more music “like Bach.”  That quest has led me down quite a few paths and lines of inquiry and I’ve discovered a lot of great new music, particularly from the 17th century.  I hope to say more about some of those discoveries in future posts, but for now, just let me say that Giovanni Legrenzi is awesome! ^_^

A piano came to live with me in Sept. 2011 and I have spent many, many hours playing for the first time in years.  I learned Bach’s French Suite no. 6 pretty well and a variety of pieces by François Couperin.  I also was working on the 1st and 2nd English Suites and a couple of the Toccatas for awhile.  Recently, I got the Dover editions of Handel‘s and Rameau‘s keyboard works plus a book of songs by the pop/rock group October Project.

I solved the 3×3 Rubik’s Cube in Oct. 2011 and have since solved the 4×4 cube, the Megaminx (a 3×3 dodecahedron), and the Pyraminx.  Working on these puzzles has really helped to rekindle my interest in mathematics.  I spent some time reviewing group theory (directly applicable to solving combinatorial puzzles like the cubes), ring theory, and for a while I was trying to teach myself combinatorial game theory.

My wife and I have been going to more concerts in the last two years.  We’ve been fortunate enough to hear Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B minor Mass, St. Mark Passion, all of the Brandenburg concertos, and some good chamber music (including a piece by Legrenzi just last weekend).  In addition to our local groups, we’ve seen Jordi Savall (twice!), Theatre of Voices, and Ronn McFarlane.

Finally, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time retagging my digital music collection.  I am never satisfied with the tags that iTunes retrieves from the CDDB and while I usually make changes before I import CDs, I forewent this long process with some of the large box sets I’ve gotten in the last couple of years.  I’ve been working hard on this task for the last few months and I am only recently getting close to finishing the tags on the BCE!

I’ll have a lot more to say on some of these subjects (plus some new data to post) in the near future.

I hope that everyone found a way to enjoy Bach’s birthday today!

I spent some time contemplating how best to celebrate this year.  Last year, I listened to 24 hours of Bach’s music over the course of four days, mostly selected at random by my music player.  This year, I would’ve liked to listen to the complete works in one week but that seemed a little unreasonable.  A couple of saner options also presented themselves:  I could spend the week listening to the remainder of the Bach Complete Edition — I had about 36 hours left as of yesterday; or I could inaugurate a year of “daily Bach” which would cover the complete works; or I might just listen to some favorite pieces as in past years.  I was also considering making a blog post every day this week.  Unfortunately, I think that time constraints this week will be the deciding factor.

So, I started today off with a couple hours of “celebratory” music, most of which shared the key of D major, among which were:

Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D major, BWV 1050
Prelude and Fugue no. 5 in D major, BWV 874
Sinfonia from Cantata no. 29
Toccata in D major, BWV 912
Cantata no. 149, Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg
Allabreve in D major, BWV 589
Interleaved movts. from Orchestral Suites no. 3 & 4
Partita no. 4 in D major, BWV 828

Later, I was listening to three new-to-me cantatas all festively scored with multiple trumpets and timpani: BWV 19 for the Feast of St. Michael, BWV 34 for Pentecost, and BWV 31 for Easter Sunday.  I hardly could have chosen three better pieces to fit the mood of the day!  The four choruses of these cantatas are full of “joyful noises”, especially Friede über Israel of no. 34.  The instrumental sonata that begins Cantata no. 31 bounces musical exclamations back and forth between the trumpets and its large double-reed section consisting of 4 oboes, taille (a low, “tenor” oboe), and bassoon.  The four-part chorale settings that close cantatas nos. 19 and 31 include soaring trumpet descants in addition to the colla parte instruments.

There are several wonderful arias among these cantatas too.  Gott schickt uns Mahanaim zu of Cantata no. 19 features a soprano solo and two oboes d’amore weaving imitative parts around each other (a combination I tend to love).  The tenor aria, Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir, from the same work sounds like a slow lament and might seem somewhat plain if it weren’t adorned with a contrasting chorale tune on a solo trumpet.  This cantus firmus adds a sense of anticipation to the aria for me and I feel as if it is a joyful tune that has been slowed down only so that it doesn’t outrun the aria.  Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen of Cantata no. 34 is scored for alto, strings, and a pair of flutes and it has a gentle, pastoral feel.  But it is Letzte Stunde, brich herein from Cantata no. 31, whose duet between soprano and oboe is so beautiful that it makes my heart ache.  Seldom satisfied with simplicity, Bach adds an unobtrusive chorale tune to the background of the divided strings in this aria.

Even some of the recitatives of these cantatas shine: Erwünschter Tag! for bass and So stehe dann for tenor, both in no. 31, and Herr, unsre Herzen halten dir for tenor in no. 34 are all extraordinarily expressive. Overall, Bach really pulled out all of the stops to reinforce the majesty and triumphal rejoicing of these three feasts.

I’ll finish tonight by sharing one little but surprising discovery:  the solo runs that open the Toccata of the sixth keyboard Partita (BWV 830) are septuplets!  (Or at least that is how the Bach Gesellschaft edition notates them).  For the uninitiated, septuplets are notes that divide a beat into seven equal lengths which is fairly unusual for the Baroque period as far as I know.  I’m sure we could argue about whether Bach really intended equal divisions or not, but …

Share your experiences of Bach’s birthday this year in the comments!

Bach didn’t write any music that we know of specifically for Ash Wednesday (or most of the Sundays in Lent either).  I am guessing this is due to long-standing liturgical traditions that prohibited the use of instruments during Lent, thus allowing only for a capella singing.  But, I still wanted to find some suitable music to listen to yesterday.

Earlier this week, I was listening to Bach’s cantatas for “Estomihi” Sunday (a.k.a. Quinquagesima or the Sunday before Lent).  These include cantata nos. BWV 22, BWV 23, BWV 127, and BWV 159.   No. 127 is particularly interesting with its diverse instrumentation, colorful word painting, and a haunting duet between soprano and oboe d’amore.  The same aria features one of Bach’s few uses of pizzacato strings.

By yesterday I was ready to move on to some other pieces.  I settled on a “penitential” theme mixing together the chorale hymn “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (which translates as “Out of the depths I cry to Thee”, a traditional Lenten psalm) with organ chorale preludes from Clavierübung III and cantata no. 38, all based on this chorale.  And I followed that with an organ prelude like a small partita and a cantata on the hymn “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich” which seemed in the same spirit. The Fugue in G minor, BWV 131a, made an excellent postlude since it is a transcription of the second part of the final chorus of cantata no. 131.

Here is my Ash Wednesday playlist:

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 686
Chorale: Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 38:6
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 1099
Cantata BWV 38, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir”
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687
Partita on Aus der Tiefe rufe ich, BWV 745
Cantata BWV 131, “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich”
Fugue in G minor, BWV 131a

Some corrections

I’d noticed a couple of errors in my Bach Complete Edition documents recently and I was able to correct all of them tonight as well as make further improvements to the “Index of CDs by BWV number” (which is now down to a nice compact four pages).  The most significant error was that I had misidentified track 12 of CD 151 – “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” – as BWV 656a when it should be BWV 1085.  The sleeve didn’t have a BWV number but I’m pretty sure that I’ve got it right now.  My list of contents for the BCE now includes the organ works 653b and 1085.

Also, because the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor BWV 1060r
is mislabeled on CD 9 as “Concerto for Oboe d’Amore, BWV 1055r”, it seems uncertain to me who the performers are.  The CD sleeve lists Rob Visser (oboe) and the Amsterdam Bach Soloists for 1055r.  While these might be correct for the recording of 1060r which is actually included (with an unidentified violinist), I have found some evidence online that the performers may actually be Daniëlle Kreeft (oboe), Juditha Heberlin (violin), and the Netherlands Bach Ensemble.  Since I’m not sure yet, I have not changed it in the list of contents.

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