Mar 04

Bach Among the Theologians, by Jaroslav Pelikan ★★★★★
This book explores the theology of Bach, written by an eminent conservative Lutheran theologian who taught church history at Yale University. It is a delightful easy read. JS Bach, while known as indubitably and unquestionably as the greatest composer to ever have walked terra firma, also had an interesting theological side to him. Bach was known to have an exceptionally large library of theological texts, and most of his texts were heavily annotated by him, as seen as column notes in all of his books in his own handwriting. An analysis of his musical output demonstrates that this interest in theology had a highly significant impact on the music that he wrote. In particular, Bach was caught in Germany during the struggles of Pietism (centered in Halle, not far from Leipzig), and the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) mentality. Pietism sought for a strong personal religion without the public sphere and without “fancy” music, which Bach strongly opposed, while in conjunct with the Pietists, pleaded in his music for a strong personal relationship with God. Contrary to the Aufklärung, which sought to “de-mythologize” the Scripture, Bach sought through his music to emphasize the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in opposition to Aufklärung thinking. Thus, Pelikan would call each cantata of Bach also a sermon in music by Bach.
Pelikan provides marvelous insights into the theological culture of Bach’s time, and shows how Bach confronted culture with his music. Much of the second half of the book details Bach’s thinking in the two existing Passions and the H-moll Messe. With the H-moll Messe (B-minor mass), Pelikan shows how Bach thoroughly “Lutheran-izes” the mass, making it a more Catholic mass than just the confines of the Roman Catholic church. Pelikan’s final discussions counter a contemporary move to make Bach an essentially secular thinker, highlighting the much smaller volume of Bach’s secular works. Even here, Pelikan is able to show that Bach is thinking sacred in his secular music, and that it is impossible to strip Bach of a religious, theological context.
This book is a must read for anybody that enjoys Bach and delights in vast array of music that he produced. It also gives one a greater interest in not only listening to the cantatas, but following along the words of the cantatas to hear the “sermon” that Bach is preaching through music.

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Jan 19

BachOrganAlainBach Works for Organ, performed by Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★
I have multiple recordings of the Bach organ works, including that found in the complete sets of Bach works by Brilliant and Hänssler, as well as the complete organ works by Walcha, Hurford, and Preston. Alain has recorded the Bach works for organ three times, this being her last complete recording. She is a formidable Bach interpreter, and her recordings of Bach’s organ works remains among the best loved and most sought out. I would certainly agree with that, in that she delivers a depth of feeling in the works that is noticeable. The technical aspects of her performances are also quite superlative. Each of the Bach interpreters in my collection offer something different to the Bach organ works, which make them complementary. Perhaps the performances that stand out the most are the Simon Preston recordings, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I could not say that any one series is best, and if a person were to seek out a single performance set for their collection, I would not not suggest any recording as better or worse than any other; you won’t err with any set of Bach’s organ works. Bach has a style distinctly different from other contemporary composers, including a style that is more demanding, more use of the pedals, and a better cohesion of musical statements than others. If all we had from Bach were his organ works, he still would remain a most remarkable and exceptional composer.

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Dec 15

MusicInCastleHeavenBach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner ★★★★★
Gardiner is not especially my favorite conductor, but he does a fantastic and compelling job of writing this book. The text is partially a biography of Bach, but also partially a critique of his music, and commentary on music in Bach’s time. Gardiner conducts well, but he writes even better, and this book was difficult to put down. The first half of the book is more narrative, and the last half is more exploration of the cantatas and major choral works of Bach. What are you left with? A kid born in a small town in rural Germany to musical parents, orphaned when he was 9, lives a few years with his oldest brother before being thrown out, hikes up to Lübeck with a buddy and attends an orphans school for a year or so, comes back to Thuringia, and gets measly employment. In his first job, the city mayor asks Bach to include a bassoon solo for the mayor’s son, which Bach does—the solo happens to be too difficult for sonny boy and so he attacks Bach in a back alley and daddy naturally sticks up for sonny. Obviously, Bach didn’t put up with that. He spends time in prison. He has serious employer problems. He survives a war. He has problems with wayward children. I could go on and on. Gardiner paints many personal facets of Bach’s life that turns him into a real person, and erases the massive quantity of hagiography written about him. Bach also was an avid theology reader, and well versed in the writings of Luther, as well as in Lutheran commentaries on the Scripture. As mentioned, the later part of the book explores more the actual choral compositions of Bach, focusing especially on the Passions of John and Matthew, as well as the B minor mass. Fortunately, I was familiar with these pieces and could follow the text. I caution the reader not familiar with Bach’s music to spend some time working through his cantatas and major choral works while you read the book to get the full effect of the book. This book was a total delight to read, and so much so that I purchased additional copies for my musical friends. Hopefully, they develop as much appreciation for Bach as Gardiner has.

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Oct 11

OrgansToccatasOrgans, Toccatas, & Fantasias, featuring Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★
Marie-Claire Alain is a French organist, having a fairly broad repertoire, though she is known to have recorded the complete Bach organ works three times. In this brief video, she expresses her immense love for the compositions of Bach, and why she feels that Bach was the greatest of all composers. She performs many of his works on various organs throughout Europe, using a combination of larger and smaller church instruments. Included are organs that Bach quite possibly may have played on himself. She goes into a moderate discussion of the organ as an instrument. Her playing is excellent, and the discussion is enjoyable, though brief and somewhat disorganized. This is a nice once or twice watched film.

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Jan 11

Die Thomaner, a DVD documentary of the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig ★★★★★
David Miller on makes a review of this DVD as one of the best music documentaries that he has yet seen. I would concur. This is a one year documentary of the life of students at this 800 year old school in Leipzig, Germany, the most famous cantor being none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. One experiences the brutal testing necessary for entry into the school, the first days of homesickness, the gradual accomodation to a daily schedule that allows for minimal free time, the daily pressure for practice and perfection in music, the world tours, the excitement of performance at special times such as at Christmas and Easter, and the final end of year departure. Boys will enter at about 8-10 years of age, and leave between 16-18 years of age. During that time they will not only have mastered the Bach repetoire, but have spent many of good days on the soccer field, as well as excelled in the Thomas Internat (boarding school), which includes more students than just the 93 or so Thomanerchor Jungen. During those years, you see those who were faithful turn to an athiest belief, while there is a trend the other way, with many being so affected by Bach’s music to making a profession of faith and undergoing confirmation in the Evangelische Kirche. The angst among the students as well as the current cantor (Cristoph Biller) are well portrayed. This movie is a moving commentary on these incredible youth, worth showing to your own children when they are somewhat reluctant to practice their music lessons as they should.  The German is fairly easy to understand, with undertitles that are reasonably accurate translations.

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Oct 10

Bach Teldec (multiple performers) 154 CDs ★★★
This set was issued 10 years ago as Bach 2000 by Teldec but with a pricetag astronomically higher than what I had to pay for this set. It is a major task to listen to the entire set, by 13 GB of music, 6 days, 14 hours, and 23 minutes of music.
The cantatas were produced by the combined efforts of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt. Both men are most accomplisherd in their interpretations of Bach. This set uses almost entirely original instrumentation, and in the sacred cantatas, almost entirely boy’s choirs.
I also have the Hanssler set, as well as the set produced by Brilliant Classics. Of the three sets, I preferred the Hanssler set the most. First, though I can appreciate the talent of young kids singing complicated Bach pieces, it still doesn’t settle on the ear like mature females singing the soprano and alto parts. Second, while Helmut Rilling has come under attack for lacking the interpretitive luster of other conductors, I find that there is quite a wallop of dryness in many of the Harnoncourt and Leonhardt performances, areas where the tempo dragged, or the singers seemed to have lost interest in the piece. Thirdly, modern instrumentation that is well tuned is always more appreciated on the ear. I can appreciate the challenge of playing a valveless trumpet, but I also realize that it isn’t quite as on-pitch as modern instruments. Also, in many of the pieces in this set, the nearly-ok pitches of the woodwind instruments were noticeable. Fourthly, many of the pieces in this set had recording problems. Especially with some of the ensemble instrumental works, recording balance was quite problematic, with one instrument of two playing sounding either disproportionately loud or quiet. To the credit of this set, they maintained some standardization, such as using the harpsicord throughout the keyboard pieces. The organ works were entirely performed by Ton Koopman, and superb.
For the Bach afficionato, this is a must-have set. Many of the works in this set are quite charming, showing brilliance in interpretation and performance. The problems set aside, I think Bach would have been quite pleased had he had a chance to hear any of these performances, and would not have thrown his wig in disgust for lack of performance quality.

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Feb 27

This review covers four different video recorded performances of Bach’s b-minor mass. The first is from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig with Blomstedt conducting, then second from Neubuern with Guttenberg conducting, the third from München with Karl Richter conducting and the fourth from the Thomaskirche again with cantor Billing and a Jungenchor. Each performance is quite different and it would do an injustice to Bach’s h-moll messe to only see one performance. But first, I must say a summary about the mass itself. It was written by Johann Sebastian Bach during his Leipzig years when he was Cantor of the Thomaskirche. This was during the most mature phase of Bach’s composing years, and this piece was written by Bach without much expectation that it would ever be performed in his lifetime. Indeed, this piece also represents the pinnacle of all music of all times, written by the greatest composer to ever have lived. I look forward to the days in glory when Bach is again writing music, this time in a glorified state, and possibly with King David, the sweet musician, at his right hand providing words and suggestions for the melody.  The h-moll Messe is a demonstration of how perfectly words and music could go together — nobody did it better than Bach. The music of Bach always fits the words, and fits them perfectly. Though the church I attend emphasizes the importance of having the tune match the words, I think of how often they fail. Two examples follow. The first is O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus, sung in a minor key to a Jewish dance rhythm. Bach would have been horrified. The second is Rock of Ages, sung to the New City tune. The New City tune itself is catchy, but absolutely terrible in its compositional development, in that the first phrase is repeated with slight variations all the way to the end without progression or true development, and it simply doesn’t fit the words of Rock of Ages, wording that needs a solid tune, not a fancy flighty tune. The words that Bach uses are words that are so correct and true that they will again be sung in heaven. The music has a level of complexity and genius that no composer to date has even come close to matching, but bringing shear terror to the performer. It is sad that so many church musicians have a culturally closed their ear to the music of Bach since his compositions were all in either German or Latin, and never in English. The modern English and American church composers have no contest when placed against the least known or performed works of Bach. It’s a pity that we have to put up with the contemporary rubbish of Rutter, Townend, Getty, and others. Truly, I find it impossible to maintain a dry eye once a well-done Bach performance begins, as it is just too beautiful to contain the emotion. There are few other composers that can so overwhelmingly move a person. I pray that other church musicians will catch the Mendelssohn discovery that Bach can be imitated but never surpassed.

Bach’s B-minor Mass, Herbert Blomstedt conducting Gewandhausorchester und Gewandhauskammerchor ★★★★★
This is an all-adult performance (no child-musicians) on modern instruments. It is held in the choir loft of the Thomaskirche, facing the altar and grave of JS Bach. Having been in that church a number of times, I’m not sure how they fit everybody in. The acoustics were superb, and performance was most delightful. Blomstedt is a very engaging conductor. He tends to manifest a very friendly face to the musicians, frequently smiling and interacting with the musicians with his eyes and hands, while singing along with the music. The musicians seem to respond in kind to him, maintaining a dynamic spirit that promotes the spirit of the piece. As an example, when the credo speaks of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, the music is quite solemn and hushed. This immediately transforms into a most joyous explosion of the trumpets, orchestra and musicians when singing of Christ rising from the grave, and Blomstedt makes it happen perfectly. This performance is not with a large choir and orchestra, but reflects perfectly the spirit of Bach in Bach’s home. I’m sure that Bach gave a smile in the grave.

B minor mass, performed by the Neubeuern Choral Society, Enoch zu Guttenberg conducting ★★★★
This is a difficult piece to critic. There is so much good and bad about it. The performance itself was very good. The singers were very well organized. The orchestra and soloists performed flawlessly. Guttenberg conducted with intense spirit. I was surprised at how young many of the singers and musicians were. Though there were a few older people in the performance, it was mostly younger people. The choir itself was much larger than the orchestra and placed behind the orchestra, which was an average size for a Bach performance. The entire production occurred in a small narrow church, so that it seemed that the distance between the conductor and last row of the choir was quite great.
Things that bothered me were several. The recording itself did not do justice to the performance, coming across as a bit flat. You really didn’t have the feel like you were recording in a church. The conductor recently appeared to have left upper extremity surgery, and his arm was in a sling and cast, making it very distractive. The biggest flaw of the recording was the camerawork, which was constantly straying to painting and fixtures on the wall of the church. It was quite annoying. The camerawork and audio recording gets a 1 star for failing to make you feel present at a performance. Other than that, it is a worthy recording to have in ones collection.

Bach Messe in H-moll with Janowitz, Topper, Laubenthal and Prey, Conducted by Karl Richter, Münchener Bach Chor ★★★★
I have always liked Karl Richter, and his renditions of many of the Bach cantatas are absolutely first class. Interestingly, this performance, held in a large baroque styled church in 1969, seemed to be a bit flat. Except for Hermann Prey, none of the soloists seemed really moved by what they were singing, and the entire performance limped. The quality of performance was exemplary, and the performance occurred without a flaw. Even the cameraman seemed to be bored, with him rarely holding onto the performers, but focusing on the ceiling or drifting around the walls and lattice ornaments of the church. It would have been more enjoyable to simply listen to the performance, and not watch it on the DVD.

Bach h-moll Messe with Thomanerchor Leipzig, Cantor George Biller and Gewandhousorchester Leipzig ★★★
This performance had a number of distinct differences from the performances above. The choir was a boy’s choir. The alto solo was a male alto. There were added pieces in latin, some of which were sung by the cantor. The performance was quite decent, and stupendous for the boys. My problems with this production were several. First, I really don’t like boy’s choirs, except as a curiosity. Second, I find male altos to be especially harsh on the ear, even though this alto was not bad at all. Thirdly, the camera seemed to find particular fascination with the newly remodeled roof of the Thomaskirche. A nice touch was the camera panning in on Bach’s grave at the very beginning and very end of the performance.  All things considered, it was a rather impressive performance for the Knabenchor. This was a nice change from the typical performance of the B-Minor mass.

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Jan 21

The Joy of Bach, featuring Brian Blessed ★★★
This short movie is a wonderful tribute to the greatest musician of all time, our own Johann Sebastian Bach. The movie is an amalgam of Blessed reenacting fictitious though highly possibly true scenes from the life of JS Bach, and modern day performances of Bach. The modern day performances were both done in standard orchestral classical style, though the emphasis was on how musicians have incorporated Bach into the most unique circumstances, such as performances on steel drums, guitars, Moog synthesizers, and you name it. Blessed effectively communicates that the music of Bach is so great, that it continues to live today regardless of how it is played. Perhaps there is no other composer that has ever or will ever achieve this distinction to the extent that has happened with Bach. This movie can inspire even those who dislike the music of Bach.

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Oct 09

Edition Bachakademie Hänssler, mostly featuring Helmut Rilling ?????
This is now my second hearing of this set of 172 CDs, consisting of all the known works of Johann Sebastian Bach. There exist two other collections of his works, one put out by Brilliant Records, and the other by Teldec. I do not have the Teldec set, but will probably purchase it when it becomes available again. This set, costing about $1600 (I paid much less for it), is now being offered for $300 on, which should be a total steal. The Hänssler edition is the only collection that utilizes adults and modern instrumentation for the productions of all the cantatas and other choral works. The only exception, of course, is the boys choir in the Mätthaus Passion. There are better performances many of Bach’s cantatas. I feel that Karl Richter’s cantatas are superior in terms of feeling and expressive content, though Richter offers less than half of all of Bach’s cantatas. Rilling is a most capable conductor, offering the complete cantatas and other vocal works of Bach, with more compelling performances than any of the other complete collections. The Brilliant and Teldec sets oftentimes uses boy performers, which can easily become quite wearisome to the ears. Rilling, like Richter, avoids period instruments, thus giving a brilliance and charm to the works that other performances do not possess. Regarding using modern vs. original instrumentation, the keyboard works for harpsichord are variously performed in this set, occasionally with a piano, occasionally with a clavecin, and usually with a harpsichord. I appreciate harpsichord music, but, much dynamics of performance appear to be missing with a harpsichord. Even when a piano is used instead of a harpsichord, the performer usually tends to plays the piano in a fashion like I was taught, to make it sound like a harpsichord. This ends up in a rather mechanical sound, that might be imitated by a piano roll. Perhaps, this is why I really appreciate the Bach performances of Glen Gould, who breaks out of the mold of original instrument thinking, and allows Bach to speak in a new and fresh fashion. Sometimes, an unusual array of instruments are used, such as in the Wohltemperte Klavier, where the harpsichord, organ and Clavicin are all variously utilized. The keyboard works were quite variable, though most with quite convincing and compelling performances, even though a number were more routinely and mechanically driven. In total, this set is an amazing compendium of mostly top notch, well performed Bach. The cantatas are the selling point of this set, though that should not diminish the attractiveness of the rest of the works on the set, whether they be keyboard, violin or cello sonatas, or any of the other plenteous compositions of the greatest of all composers of all time. Any lover of Bach must have this set: it will be treasured for many hearings.

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Jul 27

Bach Organ Works, performed by Simon Preston ?????
I was a little leery of getting yet another set of Bach Organ works, since both the Peter Herford and Helmut Walcha sets are superb. Preston offers a change of venue, with many of the Bach pieces not performed in a perfectly traditional manner. Yet, the performances were entirely compelling, and most interesting to listen to. Oftentimes, syncopation or variations in volume or tonal presentation made a completely different piece than is traditionally heard. This is a very worthy purchase for the Bach lover. Quite honestly, I think that Bach would approve entirely of this performance. Remember that Bach quite often re-worked the pieces of other composers in order to hear them in a fresh manner. These works are definitely fresh, and bring an intense amount of life and vitality to what might otherwise be considered fairly boring works.

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