Archive for Johan Sebastian Bach

Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2018 by telescoper

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!


Erbarme Dich Allah

Posted in Music with tags , , on February 4, 2018 by telescoper

Here is a wonderful re-imagining of the aria Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott from the St Matthew Passion by Johan Sebastian Bach sung in Arabic with intense passion by Egyptian contralto Fadia el-Hage.

Three things struck me when I first heard this on the radio the other night. After the initial surprise when I first heard her voice, I thought how wonderfully well the Middle-Eastern inflections work with Bach. That’s mo surprise of course, because Bach’s music is so beautifully constructed that it can be performed in many different ways without diminishing its power. It really is universal.

The other thing was about a different kind of universality, that it seems common to all humans to reach out for whatever it is that lies beyond everyday life and experience, whether through religion or by some other means. We don’t have to agree with each other’s beliefs to see in others the same need as ourselves. This aria in particular (I’ve posted about it before) conveys the feelings of shame and remorse of the disciple Peter after having betrayed Jesus. The point is that feelings such as this are universal. We all – men and women, christian and non-christian – come to know what it is to feel like this, just as we all come to know about pain and death. It’s the fact that we all know that we will die that gives the story of the Passion its tragic power.

Finally it occurred to me that this might annoy some intolerant folk as it translates all these things into an Islamic context. That gives me an additional reason for posting it!

Paul Carr’s Lunchtime Concert at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

Yesterday I went to my first-ever lunchtime event at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, which was a concert of organ music performed by Paul Carr. There wasn’t a very big crowd, which must have been quite unsettling for the soloist in such a big venue, but the recital was thoroughly enjoyable. The eclectic programme consisted of:

Alfred Hollins: Concert Overture No 2 in C minor

JS Bach: Trio Sonata No 5 in C, BWV 529 (3 movements)

Antonio Soler:  Concerto No 6 for two organs (Minué)

Hans-Martin Kiefer:  Die ganze Welt hast du uns überlassen (Blues Chorale)

Eric Coates, arr Edward Marsh:  The Dambusters March

Marco Enrico Bossi: Scherzo in G minor

Louis Vierne: Two movements from Symphony No. 1

The reason I attended – apart from just having the rare opportunity to hear the magnificent organ at St David’s Hall – was the Bach Trio Sonata. Bach wrote six of these and they’re all an absolute joy to listen to, so for me the concert was worth it just for that piece.  I have to admit that I was also intrigued to the music by Eric Coates for the 1955 film The Dam Busters played on an organ. Paul Carr actually pointed out that this piece is a nod in the direction of Elgar: its fanfare-like opening and big “very English sounding tune” is really reminiscent Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Indeed I gather the famous “bouncing bomb” melody has even been used for a hymn (“God is our strength and refuge”, based on Psalm 46). Anyway, the climactic ending of the piece, played on a huge organ like the one at St David’s Hall with all the stops out, is powerfully effective, and almost as noisy as I imagine flying in a Lancaster bomber must be.

The other pieces were completely unfamiliar to me before, but constituted a very pleasant menu for a lunchtime treat, all wonderfully served by Paul Carr. The only problem with lunchtime concerts, is that they don’t give you time for an actual lunch!


Jacques Loussier Before Seven

Posted in Music with tags , on February 23, 2016 by telescoper

This morning, as usual, I was woken this morning by the breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3. There is a regular slot called Bach Before Seven which I always listen to despite the risk of harpsichords. This morning I was delighted that the choice was an arrangement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach played by the Jacques Loussier Trio. It might have been a much for some classical purists, but I liked it a lot.  Bach’s music is so beautifully constructed that it can stand being pulled around in all sorts of ways.

If you’re of a certain age (like) me you might  also remember that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet but not remember who played the tune. It was, fact, Jacques Loussier and his trio doing their take on the so-called Air on the G String, also by  Johann Sebastian Bach And before you get too sanctimonious and music-hysterical about this version, I’ll just add that it is well known that Bach enormously enjoyed improvisation. Many jazz musicians of my acquaintance really love Bach’s music, and I have a sneaking feeling the great man would have enjoyed this take on his composition!

Ps. Coincidentally Sunday’s Azed crossword offered this clue for 19 down:

“One re-interpreting Bach, central duo halved, more unsatisfactory (7)”


A Whiter Shade of Bach?

Posted in Music with tags , on September 22, 2011 by telescoper

I’m finally back from a pretty intense three days in dear old Swindon. On the train coming home I happened to listen to this classic for the first time in ages and, too tired for anything else this evening, I thought I’d share this version  I found on Youtube because it’s positively dripping with nostalgia for the Swinging Sixties.

Incidentally, I’ve always believed that a Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum was based pretty directly on music by Johan Sebastian Bach. I don’t know who told me so, but I’ve always taken it for granted. Listening to it a few times on my iPod and again since I got home has made me realise that I’ve probably been a bit unfair to the songwriters Gary Booker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a sentiment confirmed by the wikipedia article about the piece I linked to through its title.

It is true that it sounds very much like Bach, especially the trademark descending bass figures which feature in the Hammond organ part; indeed, the first few bars of the accompaniment are pretty much identical to the second movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 better known as “Air on the G String“. After that, although the piece continues to sound like Bach, in the sense that the chord progression has a compelling sense of logic to it, it’s not an copy of anything I recognize (although of course I stand ready to be contradicted by music experts…). The melody is also, as far as I’m aware, quite original.

Here are the chords, by the way, if you’re interested. They’re a great illustration of the difference between a real progression and just a sequence. In fact I’m quite surprised this hasn’t been taken up by more jazz musicians, as it looks like very fertile grounds for improvisation – just as much of Bach’s own music is.

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, it was a huge hit and I think it still sounds fresh and interesting over 40 years later. I for one don’t think the word “masterpiece” is an exaggeration.

Air on the G string

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , on November 28, 2009 by telescoper

Well, you’ll either love this or hate it. If you’re of a certain age like me you might  also remember that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet but not remember who played the tune. This is, fact, Jacques Loussier and his trio doing their take on Johann Sebastian Bach. And before you get too sanctimonious and music-hysterical about this version, I’ll just add that it is well known that Bach enormously enjoyed improvisation. I have a sneaking feeling he would actually have quite liked this…