Archive for Johann Sebastian Bach

The Goethe-Institut Choir Christmas Concert

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 18, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I found myself yet again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, this time for a Christmas Concert by the Goethe-Institut Choir and the Goethe Ensemble, directed by John Dexter, together with a fine set of principals Katy Kelly (soprano), Christina Whyte (alto), Dustin Drosdziok (tenor) and Eoghan Desmond (bass).

The main items on the menu were three Parts of the Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach. Before the interval wine break we heard Parts I and IV, the former opening with the famous Jauchzet, frohlocket!, followed in the second half by Part III. The whole Oratorio is in six parts, which I think would make it too long for an evening concert, which explains why only three pieces were performed. I’m not sure why the particular ordering was chosen for the selected parts but it worked rather well. The various Parts are basically separate cantatas anyway, so performing them individually like this is perfectly sensible.

Before Part III of the Oratorio, which came in Part II of the Concert, after Part IV, which came in Part I,  the Choir performed some shorter pieces without the orchestra: a mediaeval carol called Angelus ad Virginem, a piece from the magnificent All-Night Vigil by Sergei Rachmaninov, БОГОРОДИЦЕ ДЈЕВО, and a much jauntier version of the same text (closely related to Ave Maria) by Arvo Pärt.  Then there was an audience singalong to Stille Nacht, with verses in English, Irish and German.

In case you’re interested, the opening verse of Silent Night in Irish reads

Oíche chiúin, oíche Mhic Dé,
Cách ‘na suan, dís araon,
Dís is dílse ag faire le spéis,
Naí beag gnaoi-gheal ceanán tais caomh
Críost ina chodladh go séimh,
Críost ina chodladh go séimh.

The choir was really excellent in these pieces, as it was throughout the concert.

The second piece in the concert  (Part IV) was marred by poor pitching of the two French horns, but there was compensation in the form of lovely playing by the interweaving violins behind the tenor aria, and an echo effect achieved by placing an oboe and vocalist (soprano Eilis Dexter) in the choir balcony (the main choir being on stage with the Orchestra).

The concert got off to an inauspicious (but rather amusing) start when the power supply failed for the chamber organ played by Niall Kinsella just as the concert was about to begin. I didn’t realise those instruments needed to be plugged in. Obviously batteries are not included. A stage hand had to dash on and fiddle about to find another socket behind the drapes surrounding the stage and then bring on an extension cable. Fortunately the delay wasn’t long.

Overall this was a very enjoyable concert, with Choir and Orchestra on good form. The principal vocalists were good too. I particularly liked Katy Kelly. It didn’t surprise me when I read in the programme that she has recently performed two great roles in Mozart operas: Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), La Contessa (Le Nozze di Figaro) and performed the Die Königin der Nacht coloratura arias from the Magic Flute on television. I think she has a great voice for Mozart, agile and graceful.

I should also mention that the Concert was pretty much sold out, which was good to see. No doubt the absence of a harpsichord contributed to its success.

Anyway, that concludes my concert-going for 2018. Hopefully there will be a few more to report on in 2019!



Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach Suites for Solo Cello

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on September 7, 2015 by telescoper

I stayed in on Saturday night especially to listen to a very special promenade concert live on BBC Radio 3 during which renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played all six of the Suites for unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was an absolutely brilliant concert which you can, if you missed it, or even if you didn’t,  download for the next month here. The whole thing runs for over two and a half hours, but I didn’t move from my seat once.

I’ve loved all these pieces from the moment I first heard them. How Bach manages to conjure up such a vast range of melodic and rhythmic possibilities using just the one instrument is almost miraculous. Despite using very few chords, they manage to explore the  harmonic domain too. Part of what makes them so special is the instrument itself – its earthy sound, complete with occasional growls and scrapes, emphasizes how this sublime music is somehow at the same time deeply human, somehow connecting the listener to something from far beyond the mundane world we normally inhabit. I’m not a religious man, but listening to music like this is a spiritual experience for me.

Do listen to the whole concert if you can, but if you can’t here’s a short taster (recorded elsewhere). This is the Prelude to the 1st Suite, the first page of which is here:


If you look at the sheet music you might be forgiven for thinking that it is just a dry exercise in playing across the strings. Listen to it come to life, however, and you’ll quickly realise that you were wrong. The ending of this prelude always sends shivers down my spine.

I know these suites have been transcribed for other solo instruments, such as the flute, but listening to them on Saturday I wondered if they had been transcribed for my favourite earthy and growly instrument, the tenor saxophone. In fact they have; you can hear an example here.  One problem that struck me immediately is that saxophonists have to pause for breath! Anyway,  I must get a copy of the transcription and have a go at learning it, though I think it would take a Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane to do them justice!


Bach – Vivace!

Posted in Music with tags , , on March 19, 2014 by telescoper

I heard a recording of this movement from Trio Sonata No. 6 in G Major by J.S. Bach this morning on BBC Radio 3 and thought it was so lovely I couldn’t resist finding a version of it to post on my own organ, as it were. This, the first movement, appropriately enough marked Vivace, has a bouncy exuberance that I find totally wonderful. I hope you like it too.


Jacques Loussier and the Pekinel Twins play Bach

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , on February 21, 2014 by telescoper

I heard a track by this combination on the Breakfast Programme on BBC Radio 3 yesterday morning and thought I’d include something on here; it’s basically the Jacques Loussier Trio, which is famous for its Jazz re-workings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with the addition of the identical twins Güher  and Süher Pekinel on pianos.

Apparently some members of the Radio 3 audience didn’t take kindly to Ian Skelly’s decision to play something by this combination, but I have to say I loved it; it really put a spring in my step. I’ve remarked before on this blog that many Jazz musicians are great admirers of Bach (who was himself a talented improviser).  It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case, particularly in the case of the keyboard works, because the music always has such a rich and compelling  harmonic progression built into it – just what a Jazz musician needs. Bach’s compositions are so well constructed that they can cope with being pulled around more than those of any other composer I can think of. Above all, despite the change of musical vocabulary and the addition of a rhythm section, the best Jazz versions still somehow manage to sound  like Bach….

From the following clips you can see that the twins play from sheet music – I think the arrangement was written  by Jacques Loussier – while Loussier’s contribution is largely improvised. In the clip they play versions of Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor BWV 1063 (with Jacques Loussier) followed the Concerto for Two Keyboards in C minor, BWV 1060  (without Loussier)…

Bach for Easter

Posted in Music with tags , on April 24, 2011 by telescoper

Well, it’s Easter Sunday and it seems entirely appropriate to post this to mark the occasion. It’s the Sinfonia from the wonderful Easter Oratio BWV 249 by Johann Sebastian Bach, first performed on Easter Day in 1725.

Back to Bach

Posted in Music with tags , on April 4, 2011 by telescoper

Another very busy and tiring day gave me no time to post anything until I got home this evening. Still, Ye Olde Blogge seems to be managing well these days without me. I’m going to have an early and largely blog-free night tonight, but I thought I’d share this with you before I slump onto the sofa. I heard this piece on the radio a few days ago. I usually wake up when my alarm clock turns the radio on. Sometimes the music doesn’t get me going straight away and I slumber on for a while. When this came on, however, I was mesmerised and couldn’t have gone back to sleep if I’d wanted to.

I’ve loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for a very long time, but a lot of his work is still new to me, as this piece was until very recently. It’s one of the trio sonatas for organ that he wrote relatively late in life, apparently to help his sons learn to play the organ. The trio sonata format usually involved two different solo instruments playing over a bass accompaniment called a continuo, but here all three parts are played on the organ by one musician. The result is absolutely beautiful, especially played as this recording on a lovely sounding organ.

I’ve listened to this piece repeatedly over the last week or so and every time I hear it I’m filled with a sense of euphoria. I think awesome is an understatement for such music as this.

PS. The pictures are of the town of Leipzig, which was Bach’s home for many years.


The Miracle of Bach

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 22, 2009 by telescoper

The discussion after yesterday’s post prompted me to put this online. It’s a stunning performance that I heard a while ago but have been saving up for a special occasion. It’s the aria Erbarme dich, Mein Gott (“Have mercy, my God”) from the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s a bit invidious to pick bits from this monumental work, which takes over three hours to perform but I wanted to post this particular excerpt here for the benefit of those people who find Bach’s music dry and academic. If you can find any piece of music in any idiom as emotionally expressive as this, then I’d love to hear it.

The aria is set for a countertenor playing the part of Peter, and it conveys his feelings of shame and remorse after having betrayed Jesus. Nowadays it is often sung by a female singer in the mezzo soprano or contralto range and it works pretty well done like that too. 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 it’s tragic power.

The structure of the piece is quite simple, in fact, consisting of a repeating  figure of a rising minor 6th interval  followed by a descending minor 3rd. This is a hook used in a lot of tunes, especially Jazz standards. The idea is to start below the tonic and then jump above it, later relaxing down onto it. Most tunes then move on somewhere else after this motif but, Bach rests there to build tension through an unresolved expectation of movement.  In the clip below the (Hungarian) singer Julia Hamari spends a full 4 seconds on that tonic note (the sustained B at 1:10-1:15). While she holds it, you can hear the tonal centre gradually shift from the root chord (Bm) to the subdominant (Em) through the cellos’ 3-chord progression G-B7-Em, in a cadence produced by adding only a single note, each time, to the sustained B: first G (to create the major triad GB below the root), then F# (for the B7 sound, ie, the V-th of the Em), and then E for the resolution. It’s so simple, only a genius could make it work.

The rhythm is interesting too. The time signature is 12/8, which is what is used in many slow blues compositions. Bach arranges the 12 notes in each bar runs of triplets that go down the natural minor scale of B. Hamari sustains that B over 9 beats: GGG-F#F#F#-EEE. This is like the walking bass lines used in jazz, but this one is relentlessly descending adding to the atmosphere of sadness and contrition.

This aria has all the hallmarks of Bach’s great work.  A beautifully memorable melody and an interesting harmonic progression form the foundations. Add to that the tragic, weeping sound of the bowed strings in the orchestra, the plucked cello notes symbolising Peter’s tears,  and the solo obbligato that Yehudi Menuin referred to as the most beautiful music ever written for the violin. Even then you don’t get the full picture, because this is so much greater than the sum of its (admittedly great) parts. What makes it so wonderful is how Bach captures the feeling of guilt and remorse so naturally. It’s not overwrought and we don’t feel manipulated. Even the extensive repetition of the phrase Erbarme dich feels so genuine. What more can be said?

Perhaps just one more thing. I think Julia Hamari’s performance of this piece is sensational. Watching her it’s difficult not to form the impression that she is completely at one with the music and the feelings that it expresses. She looks like she’s in a trance, acting as a vehicle for music that’s coming from some other place entirely. But where? I often feel this way watching great Jazz improvisers, finding it hard to rid myself of the notion that somehow the instrument is playing them rather than the other way around. I’m not a religious man, but music like this is, to me, nothing short of miraculous.

PS. Remembering that this is meant to be an astronomy blog, I’ll add that scientist and author Lewis Thomas once suggested how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe:

I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.