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An All-Bach Masterpiece Celebration with H+H

Harry Christophers
Marco Borggreve
Harry Christophers

November 1, 2020

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, Harry Christophers conducts a collection of Bach's greatest works, from the virtuosity of his concertos to the brilliance of his cantatas, on demand.

On the program:

J.S. BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048
    Cantata V from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (translation)
    Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043
    Cantata BWV 179, "Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei" (translation)
    Mass in G major, BWV 236

Handel and Haydn Society
Harry Christophers, conductor
Aisslinn Nosky and Susanna Ogata, violins

Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, soprano
Emily Marvosh, contralto
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Steven Caldicott, tenor
Woodrow Bynum, baritone

Sarah Yanovitch, soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Woodrow Bynum, baritone

Sarah Yanovitch, soprano
Clare McNamara, mezzo-soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Peter Walker, baritone

Recorded on September 28, 2018, at Symphony Hall in Boston

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

Hear a preview with Harry Christophers:

Learn more about the Handel and Haydn Society.


Brian McCreath (BM) [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath, I'm at Symphony Hall with Harry Christophers and Harry, it's so good to see you for the beginning of the 2018-2019 Handel and Haydn Society season. Welcome back to Boston.

Harry Christophers (HC) [00:00:09] It's good to be back.

BM [00:00:10] This program, you and I have talked enough times for you to know that any all-Bach program I'm going to be all in on. I love Bach and I, we've talked enough about Bach that I know he's central to your life, not just because of the era of music and your deep involvement in early music, but but just as a composer for the sheer magnitude of his music. But tell me why you felt like this season should begin with an all Bach program.

HC [00:00:38] Well, Bach is Boston. I know that they both begin with Bs, don't they? But there's something about Boston, the audience, you love Bach. I mean, why shouldn't you? I mean, we all love Bach, but it's something that's really very, very special to, I think, the Boston community and, you know, part of that is is, of course, the academia behind Bach. I mean, he defies every academic principle and you wonder just, you know, how this person wrote the music he did, which which sounds so phenomenally modern. And of course, that is what is such an important part of H+H, with our period orchestra making this music sound so vibrant and new on the old instruments we play on, because this is a sound world that, you know, we're just not used to today. It's one thing hearing our symphony orchestras, our great wind players and the oboes playing this and of course they play it gorgeously, but the timbre of an oboe and oboe d'amore and oboe di caccia, these are a very rare and individual insight into into Bach's sound world. And, you know, I think it's also, we were rehearsing last two or three days and just every player and singer, they don't mind how tired they get because they're playing Bach. They don't mind what the weather, if it's pouring with rain outside or it's incredibly humid as it was yesterday. They don't mind. And I think that's you know, that, of course, says a heck of a lot for the sort of whole personal side of us performing Bach.

BM [00:02:09] And I love that you not only touch on confirming Boston as a very Bach town because, you know, when you live in a place, you don't have a balanced perception of your own environment. But for someone who spends time in all the other places around the world that you do and to say, yes, actually Boston has a special relationship with Bach, it's a little bit confirming for us. So thank you for that.

HC [00:02:29] No, I mean, quite frankly, when I talk about Bach to anybody in Boston, I'm scared stiff because you guys know so much more about him. And it's just it's phenomenal and just brilliant.

[00:02:39] But, you know, I mean, for us, of course, as performers, it's all about, you know, bringing the music alive and actually just realizing how much detail there is in it. I mean, I'd love all the audience that comes to it, to the Bach, to actually come and sit in on some of the rehearsals just to see actually what goes into what we try out, what we think, "You know, actually, that's not going to work." And it could be a little thing like a recitativo, and a figure that's underneath it.

[00:03:03] Do we sustain that chord? Do we keep it secco? What do we do with it? I mean, you can do so many things and that's the beauty. You can never get to know fully Bach, because it's always going to be a surprise around the next bar or the next page.

BM [00:03:19] I love that. I also very much appreciate your, as always, as we've known that the H+H feels that the music is relevant to today. And there's some interesting things about the sacred choral music you chose that have relevance. But we'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to ask you about the instrumental pieces, the Brandenburg 3, and the Double Concerto, which is going to feature Aisslinn and Susanna. So tell me about your choice of those two pieces for this program.

HC [00:03:46] Well, I mean, opening the season with Bach. I mean, Brandenburg 3 is just a fantastic opener to see the players standing and just the sheer physicality of Brandenburg 3 is amazing. Setting the right, I mean, the wonderful thing about performing any music is the venues you're performing it at. And, you know, you adopt slightly different tempi depending on where you are. Here we are in Symphony Hall. The clarity of the hall is fantastic. The reverberance in the hall and the warmth is also wonderful. But the two necessarily don't go hand-in-hand, meaning that we can take the third movement of the Brandenburg 3 at the sort of, at the tempo. It can cope with all sorts of tempos, and the sort of more breakneck tempo that can be done. It is very, very exciting. But we may just have to temper that very slightly just to make sure that the detail that we work on doesn't get lost. But I think one of the, I mean, for me, one of the great things about this is seeing our players stand, seeing them actually really get into the physicality of the work, the dance-like nature of some of the motifs, and that is electric. And I'm so pleased to be doing that. And, you know, it's a piece that practically everybody knows. Actually, if you go on a British Airways flight, I think, do you know, I think if you go to the restrooms at Terminal 5, I think it's Brandenburg 3 that's playing.

[00:05:20] Everybody, even though, you know, somebody who doesn't go to classical concerts, actually if you play them that, they'll think, "Oh, yeah, no, I've heard that somewhere." And, you know,  that's the great, as a tribute to Bach, I mean, I don't think it's anything to, "Okay, we're here in a restroom, but this music is being played everywhere."

BM [00:05:35] Yeah. Yeah. And as far as Aisslinn and Susanna, Aisslinn Nosky and Susanna Ogata, they've played together now for so long. I don't know how many years they've been at H+H together, certainly since Aisslinn got here, but maybe they even collaborated before. I don't know. Anyway, they seem to have developed such a collaborative, you know, one of those patented musician mind-meld kind of relationship. So a great choice for the double concerto featuring them.

HC [00:05:58] Yeah. I mean, I do think it's the first time the two of them have played it in public together. I might be wrong. The Double.

[00:06:04] But there's a physicality they both have. I go on a lot about physicality in music. But, you know, it's the way, you know, when you watch both of them play, the physical nature of playing can often sometimes be a deterrent. And it can be sometimes off-putting to an audience. But the thing with these both, Aisslinn and Susanna, is that they are totally at one with the music. They have an amazing telepathy between each other, and that spreads. That just spreads throughout the rest of the orchestra. So, I mean, they'll be just directing that from the front. You know, I leave them to it because there's no point having a middle man there at all. And it's just great to see. And listening to it yesterday, the grace and the humility that they get in the second movement, it's fantastic. I mean, a lot of people say when they hear period groups, "Oh, yeah, they can play fast," because actually that is the wonderful nature of of the the bow and the nature of period instruments that the detail at, you know, fast tempi, is fantastic.

[00:07:14] It's when you hear them play slow and you hear this sweetness, this honey sound with a modicum of very, very subtle vibrato. And, you know, the word "vibrato" has come be a very dirty word in a lot, in sort of the early music world. But we just have to remember it's a baroque expression. And that's exactly what it is. It's an expression. And, you know, when you hear that the tender nature of long notes, and just a subtle use of a finger, it's lovely and it's endearing and it also, I think it's a piece-- I mean, again, a lot of people say Symphony Hall, it's a very big place. You know, we're used to hearing the BSO there and seeing the big symphony orchestras there. But you just as a listener, need to attune your ear to what you're hearing on the stage. And it will fill the building, but in a beautifully sensual and intimate way, which is just lovely. And again, I say it so often, but to see the players interact with each other and the whole fact that with both Aisslinn and Susanna, when they're playing the tuttis, they are there amongst the rest of the players. They're no different. They're part of that wonderful community.

BM [00:08:28] Well, you got a little self-conscious about describing so much physicality. But now that you mention that, I mean, now that you've framed the two concertos that way, I love now, how we have the physicality of these instrumental pieces, the beautiful physicality of them, and then the spirituality of the other works on this program. So let's talk about those for a little bit. And it's such a clever choice of two pieces, the fifth cantata from Christmas Oratorio and Cantata 179. They had to do so much thematically with power relationships and the way that human beings jockey among each other for power. At least that's how I'm reading it. And I'm just trying to find out, is that kind of what's behind your choice of them?

HC [00:09:14] Actually, the reason of 179 was not so much the Cantata No. 5 From Christmas Oratorio. It was actually the Mass in G Major, which is plagiarized from it. Yeah. And that is so fascinating.

[00:09:25] But 179 is absolutely extraordinary because it's a Lutheran sermon. I mean, my goodness me, that priest is bashing us into into total submission. And I've just got to, I mean, I must just read you the translation of the first movement of this. I mean, "See to it that your fear of God be not hypocrisy and do not serve God with a false heart." And it goes on.

[00:09:52] And the recits in that Cantata 179. Oh, my goodness me. You know, you have to sort of, when the audience read the program, their jaws will drop. Could that actually ever been written? Yes, it can. And my goodness me, does Bach dig into it in an incredible way.

[00:10:10] But as you say. Yes. I mean, Cantata No. 5, part of that's a very selfish thing because I never get to conduct a Christmas Oratorio here because I'm never here in December. So a lot of this is a real personal thing. And I thought, how can I get, you know, Cantata No. 5? It's New Year.

[00:10:25] I mean, its sheer effervescence from the opening is just amazing. And like all his cantatas in the Christmas Oratorio, it's so cleverly, cleverly worked. The chorales defy composition.

[00:10:42] You know, I just have to marvel. He gets away with, I mean, with the chorales, if I was writing those when I was at university, my tutor would be putting red ink all over my piece of paper.

[00:10:56] And you just have to say, come on, this is what what he wrote. The clashes, the cadences are sometimes just totally outrageous. It sounds a really simple thing, but this is one of the beauties of period music, that we believe in them. And I think that it's a bit like, Bach to me is like, very often like Purcell or Monteverdi. You know, the early music movement has allowed us to really believe that they wrote this for a purpose. Don't leave out some of those figures if you are a continuo player.

[00:11:29] You put them in. You put them in because they are using every number of your fingers, you know, Ian Watson at the keyboard. There's one moment where, you know, you ask, does he really mean that? Yes, he does. Let's play it. And I find that fascinating.

BM [00:11:45] Well, and let me ask you a little bit about that. Those themes that you mentioned in the Cantata five, because, yes, it's there's so much that references light and joy in the New Year opening. But it is also, as you say, it hints at these terrible stories of Herod sending out the order to kill all the newborn boys. And so it has this just wild contrast. Does that does that sort of play into how you shape the music of those different movements?

HC [00:12:13] It shapes the words straight away because the whole thing of night to light is very, very important through it. And there is-- where is the newborn king of the Jews. And then, you know, when you then hear the alto solo come in after that, it's just this incredible moment of phenomenal repose. And it's, you know, it's tricky, actually, to find your way through each movement to keep, I mean, you know me well, I love a kind of continuity. I need to have a way that I'm going to get from beginning to the end and it's got to be a continuity through it. Which may be a kind of inauthentic thing anyway, because the nature of the music in a liturgical context or, you know, when it's done in a church, could be conceived in a slightly different way. But I'm intent on seeing how it all evolves. And, yeah, there is very much a dark side to it which again is brought out through those recits and the way they're set up. And of course that the trio is just one of the most beautiful moments of the Oratorio. And again, you know, he is this composer and his writing-- he's got a trio, three singers. Yet he has a solo violin.

[00:13:43] [MUSIC]

HC [00:13:53] If any modern composer are doing that today, we would regard that as, "Wow, that's really quite radical. You know, why haven't you got the full unison strings playing or something?" But no, it's a solo violin with this wonderful feeling of the soprano and tenor in a kind of conversation of their own. Talking together. Meanwhile, the alto is coming in, you know, against it all, and really quite insistent. And then it melts away at the end. I find it just, yeah, staggering and beautiful.

[00:14:27] And as I said before, I just wish I had the opportunity one year to perform the whole Christmas Oratorio, because, you know, Brian, it's interesting because the work is is very seldom performed in the UK.

[00:14:39] You know, it's like the Matthew Passion. It's hardly ever done, and by period groups and sadly, the one reason is it's too expensive. And, you know, we're all sort of independent groups in the UK and we can never afford to do it.

BM [00:14:54] Well, at least we now know something on Harry's wishlist for Boston. So we'll try to look forward to that. But I hope it comes to pass one of these days. That would be really tremendous. So the relationship you mentioned before between Cantata 179 and the Mass in G basically comes down to sheet music in a way because he took the notes from one and put them into the notes of the others. But there's much more to it than that. It's not that simple. So tell me, first of all, where you see, because the masses, is it one of four or so? Or are there more?

HC [00:15:25] There are 4 Lutheran masses that he wrote, only writing the Kyrie and the Gloria and only part of that.

BM [00:15:31] So what part did those pieces play, what role do they play in all of Bach's work? What did he write them for?

HC [00:15:37] Well, for me, a lot of Bach, I mean, of course, it's the Lutheran mass, anyway, where the Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei were omitted musically. But Bach for me has always been somebody that [was] clearly conscious of leaving a legacy. In the same way he had the Brandenburg concertos, the Art of Fugue. The Matthew Passion, the John Passion, all his cantatas for the year, etc., and four Lutheran masses, all different keys, major and minor. But what's fascinating about this particular, well, all the Lutheran masses is, as you said, it's his own plagiarism. It's him using his own material, not a new idea. I mean, Renaissance composers have been doing it all the time, but more often with them, you know, they were plagiarizing somebody else's work. You know, Lassus was composing a mass based on a motet by Josquin or something. But it was very much, I think, done. Bach here plagiarizes his own works, and completely transforms them.

[00:16:40] So Cantata 179, we open with a chorus that I just mentioned the words. It's forte. It's buoyant. It's strong.

[00:16:52] [MUSIC]

HC [00:16:59] Exactly the same music for the Kyrie Christe Kyrie.

[00:17:02] [MUSIC]

HC [00:17:12] Slower tempo, the melodic lines are exactly the same, note for note. But the idiom and the feeling is so, so totally different.

[00:17:24] [MUSIC]

HC [00:17:38] The sternness of 179 to a really intimate, beautiful feeling of contemplation, prayer at the beginning of that.

[00:17:52] Unfortunately, it would be lovely to also have done the Cantata 79. So the chorus, at the beginning of the Gloria, Cantata 79, it's one of those cantatas written for a political--

BM [00:18:05] Coronation or an election.

HC [00:18:07] Election. That's right. And it starts with two horns and an insistent drum going against it.

[00:18:12] [MUSIC]

HC [00:18:27] And Bach then transforms it into this madrigalian, sopranos and altos, very lyrical and this beautiful string accompaniment to it. And then all this semiquaver, 16th-note, what I call filigree. It's wonderful.

[00:18:42] [MUSIC]

HC [00:19:01] I talked to the orchestra and chorus about it. This is top class wallpaper. This is William Morris wallpaper. But it's filigree for the important lines of the text and the longer note values, but it's totally transformed. And I just find it brilliant. I mean, for the mass, in fact, to use three Cantatas, the final cum sancto spiritu is, I think, from a much earlier cantata, I think it's Cantata 17 or something.

[00:19:29] And there's only one marked movement into the Gratias that is newly set. But just incredible. And I think one of the wonderful things for me with this Bach concert is we have Aaron Sheehan, who has performed a lot in Boston. It's the first time he's performed for me for H+H. And because there's quite a lot of tenor moments, the tenor, he's not only got The Evangelist, we've also got arias to sing. And so we brought Aaron into perform this in Symphony Hall. But all the other soloists all come from the ranks of the of the choir.

[00:20:06] And I think that just shows over the years that I've been here that the number of, now, new voices in the chorus that really can deliver solos. And it's what I've been. It's what I've been striving for. To me, you know, you sing in an ensemble, you sing in a choir, you know, your voice has got to be good and capable of singing solos, as well as singing together. There's no difference. And so I, you know, I get very annoyed with choir directors and choral courses which say, you know, you should sing in the choir in this kind of anemic way. Where the I's are dotted, dotted and the T's are crossed. And every consonant is served. And the whole thing doesn't make any sense at all.

[00:20:53] And, you know, if you got a good voice, you know, you use that and it's about making all these voices sing as one together. But using their own personality. Exactly the same we do in the orchestra with the concerto where every person gets their individual musicality and their personality through. That's exactly the same thing I want from the chorus. So we've got young Sarah Yanovitch singing this solo it from the 179. She sings beautifully. It's, you know, this is a voice for the future. And it's absolutely gorgeous. We have Woody Bynum doing some the bass solos, Peter Walker. We have Emily Marvosh, who we all know very well. We have Sonja as well doing solos and Steven Wilson as well doing a trio. Clare McNamara. I mean, there's a wealth of wonderful, I hope I've mentioned, I think I've mentioned everybody, there's a wealth of wonderful talent in our chorus. And I'm just so pleased to give them the sort of platform to sing at the front and just see all of them are text-led.

[00:21:56] And you know me. I am text-led. We've had the luxury, I've at last found a German coach who I just, I asked, Tanya has been working with us. I just said, you know, "Please be a Rottweiler with us. Just please, please just batter us into submission. But not just the words and the diction, but actually the syntax of the German. Let's make sense of the syntax." I mean, I'm not a German speaker and I work to know where the syntax is going. But I want them to hear it from somebody who really does know their German language through and through. You know, I can do, if it's Handel oratorios, that's fine. My English is pretty good. So I think I know where the sense is going. But, you know, we need to have that sense to Bach because Bach and Bach's lines come alive, you know, just simple, fugal, perhaps his chorales, you know, they're not just syllables to a note. They're much, much more than that. We can make, you know, any group can make a beautiful sound, but not every group can deliver the text and make it real. And I think the audience will really hear German that will fire off every pillar of Symphony Hall in a really electric way. And, you know, I hope that is the case. Last night when we rehearsed it, it was exciting. It was dramatic, it was sensual, it was pious, everything that needs to at the right moment.

BM [00:23:26] I have to tell you, just hearing you describe all of that, that my own perception from an audience member and hearing it on the radio, too, is that when you have singers from the chorus sing solos, there is something of, I think it happens in all vocal music, but maybe especially in Bach, because it's how it probably happened when he was around to direct it, that there is something of the community that's communicated through these people coming through rather than soloists who come in and they're not, you know, having people who are part of the ensemble take those roles kind of creates the circle in a way, I guess is kind of how I'm thinking.

HC [00:24:08] No, I think it's lovely. And I think that's absolutely right. But actually, it's sort of almost more than that, because if you're in the chorus and you're being, you're trained to get round all this, I mean, some of these movements, there are so many sixteenth notes there, they've got to really find their way around that, especially constant listening to everything around them. So when they come to sing the solo line in an aria that, for instance, I, you know, I hear so many very, very well-known singers saying, "Oh, Bach couldn't write for singers, there's nowhere to breathe." You have to make breaths part of the music in the same way we do chorally, you have to do it in a soloistic way. You make it part of music. Luckily, soloistically, you've got that little bit more freedom. And if we as instrumentalists, as a continuo section and everything, know exactly where those breaths are supposed to be, we can make them part of music. So they they fuse with it. And, you know, there's nothing worse than hearing something that is chopped up, which, because there's a breath written there, so there's a hiatus and then the thing carries on. You have to find, I use this term, turning a corner. It's like driving a car, you slow down the corner, accelerate out of it. And it and it's that same sort of process and ebb and flow. That way you're not stagnating the music, you're not making it stop, but you're allowing it to breathe in a very organic, natural way.

BM [00:25:27] This is gonna be such a great concert. I am so anxious to hear it. But I also just wonder, you know, not to go blow by blow here, but the rest of your season has some pretty spectacular moments, too. And you have Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, and then the final concert of the season is this fantastic combination of pieces. The Masonic funeral music by Mozart, along with Mozart's Requiem and Singet dem Herrn, I think is on that program, right, with the Allegri Miserere, right.

HC [00:25:56] That's going to be kind of a shock to many listeners here. I'm interested to hear, because of course in Europe, if you asked anybody, "What's the most famous piece of sacred Renaissance music ever written?" And they would say, "Allegri's Miserere." I don't know that that's so, here in America. But, I mean, I just wanted to put, you know, Mozart Requiem. Of course, you know, everybody knows it. Everybody will love it. And hopefully the audiences will flock to hear that. So I thought, right, okay, let's serve up something in the first half that's actually, that has a little bit more to do with Mozart's life. Mozart as a youngster, it's known for a fact, he went to hear, went to the Sistine Chapel because the Sistine Chapel was part of the grand tour in Lent. Everybody who who have any wealth whatsoever would go to the Sistine Chapel in Lent for the prime reason of hearing the Allegri Miserere. Now, why? Because it's not really the most interesting of pieces, and when you see it in its basic form, it really isn't very interesting at all. But for me, it really special in this program because of the mythology that surrounds the Mozart Requiem. There is a mythology that surrounds Allegri's Miserere. What we hear today is not what Allegri wrote, not quite what he wrote. And it's a fascinating thing that in, because Allegri's Miserere, it's owned by the Vatican, obviously, if one of the singers in the Vatican papal choir, the Sistine Chapel Choir, gave away a copy of the music, they faced excommunication. That's a fact. Now, everybody believes it's because of this top C.

[00:27:41] [MUSIC]

[00:28:06] But the top C is, in fact, a scribal error. Now, when the piece was sort of got out of the Vatican, it was the end of the 1890s. It came over to England, and essentially it was put together wrongly, basically. And it wasn't the top C, which was the secret. It was the embellishments, the embellementi.

[00:28:25] They were the special codes where the solo singer would do these embellishments. And that was what was secret to the Vatican. It's extraordinary. But Mozart went to hear it. Mozart wrote it down from memory. But now this is where it starts because that we have the letter from Leopold where he, basically, we need to infer from this that the young Mozart wrote it down. But his father knew that the papal decree was, this was the possession of the Vatican. So he collected whatever Mozart wrote, the young Mozart wrote was thrown away, put into the fire.

[00:29:05] But later on, the likes of Spohr, Mendelssohn, they all heard it. They wrote it down as well. Dickens. There's a marvelous thing about Charles Dickens going, to think, to want to hear Allegri's Miserere, he couldn't get in because of the crowds and he was outside the door. He couldn't get in. So it's got this incredible history to it, which I found fascinating. And then, of course, Singet dem Herrn, we know for a fact that Mozart, when he first heard this, he said, "Wow, this is something I can learn from." So I just thought it's nice to sort of put these sort of things into into a context and maybe, you know, and I think on that particular concert, I'll do a little talk. I might dissect that Allegri's Miserere for the public, so they can just see what the piece was all about. And I've done my own sort of edition, which is kind of the evolution, shows it from its earliest manuscript through to what it would have sounded like to what it sounds like today. But the lovely thing is it's like a painting, you know, it's like a, you know, a Botticelli painting. And we find it's not by Botticelli. It's a bit like that. It's still great.

BM [00:30:05] Right. Right. Well, it's something to look forward to months from now. But a lot to look forward to in this Bach concert. Harry Christophers, thanks so much for taking a chance to talk with me today. I love going through all of this with you. It's so illuminating. I appreciate your time.

HC It's a great pleasure. Thank you very much.