Monday, July 4, 2016

August 2, 2009: Bach at the Proms

There are a variety of advantages to having a "virtual Proms" experience through the BBC iPlayer Web site. For most of us, the cost of travel probably ranks the highest, in addition to which there is not only the price of tickets but also whether or not they are even available (not to mention the amount of time spent waiting in line to find out that they are not available). Finally, there is the luxury of being able to pick and choose both the concerts you wish to attend (perhaps based on a review you have already read) and when you actually wish to have your concert experience.

Having already enjoyed Bernard Haitink's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Proms 5, my personal pendulum swung a considerable distance into the past for Proms 17. This was a "late evening" Proms concert of a comparatively shorter duration due to its beginning at 10:15 PM local time. I learned about it through the high praise it received from Richard Faiman in his Financial Times review, but I probably would have been curious without having read the review. The program consisted of four motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, such by the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with instrumentalists from his English Baroque Soloists providing the continuo. The reason I probably would have been drawn to this concert regardless of any reviews is that one of the first CDs I purchased was the 1982 Erato recording of these motets with Gardiner conducting an earlier generation of these ensembles. It would be fair to say that I learned these motets from the two CDs in that set, and they remain treasured among all of my other Bach recordings.

The four motets Gardiner selected were "Komm, Jesu, Komm!" (BWV 229), "F├╝rchte, dich nicht" (BWV 228), "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227), and "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (BWV 225). The BBC broadcast benefitted from Gardiner's observations about these compositions. This began with the announcer leading him on by asking if he felt that the motets were inferior to the cantatas, to which Gardiner replied with a polite but emphatic negative. These are, indeed, impressive settings of sacred texts and may have enjoyed the advantage of not being churned out on a weekly basis, the way the cantatas were.

Most impressive is probably BWV 227, which was also the longest work on the program. It is one of those works that can be admired as much for its overall architecture as for the sensitivity Bach brought to setting its text. The program notes describe that architecture as follows:
‘Jesu, meine Freude’ is the most extended of Bach’s motets. The backbone of the text is provided by six verses of a hymn (1659) of the same name by Johann Franck – Bach twice incorporated verses from this hymn in his cantatas, BWV 81 and 133. Alternating with the hymn verses and their associated melody are five verses from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 8). Bach’s vocal textures range from three- to five-part writing and are organised in what one Bach writer, drawing upon a Blakean epithet has described as ‘fearful symmetry’.

In his interview with the announcer, Gardiner described that "fearful symmetry" as an isosceles triangle; and this above diagram is taken from the Erato notes to illustrate this point:
The one disadvantage of experiencing this performance only through audio is that, as both the announcer and Gardiner observed, that sense of symmetry was also realized through the physical disposition of the performers. Had there been greater stereo separation, one could have been more aware of this; but such separation would have been an artifact that would have distorted the ways in which Bach integrated his voices. The only solution would have come from visual cues; and it would be nice if Gardiner were to consider making a video document of the complete set of Bach motets, which could then be released in DVD form. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in listening to the recording of this Proms evening; and it provides an excellent opportunity to build up one's experiences of listening to Bach being performed by an expert in that music.

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