One of today's most vibrant harpsichordists is a soloist in a concert performance from the Boston Early Music Festival, and John Eliot Gardiner leads the Cantata No. 5 on The Bach Hour.
On the program:
Chorale Prelude: Wo soll ich fliehen, BWV 694 - Hans Fagius, organ (Nils-Olof Berg organ of the Mission Church Uppsala, Sweden)
Cantata BWV 5 Wo soll ich fliehen (translation) - Joanne Lunn, soprano; William Towers, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050 - Sandra Miller, baroque flute; Robert Mealy baroque violin; Kristian Bezuidenhout, harpsichord; Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Chorale Prelude: Wo soll ich fliehen, BWV 694 (arr. Reinhard Febel) - Yaara Tal & Andreas Groethuysen, piano
Brian McCreath (BM): As Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto begins, it sounds like yet another energetic, if routine, work featuring a group of soloists.
BM: Three musicians, carrying on a conversation, kind of like a jazz combo. But after a while, something interesting happens. It’s as though the spotlights that were equal begin to fade on two of them, leaving one in the full light of center stage.
BM: And just like that, one voice completely upstages the others to steal the show.
BM: We’ve heard the piece so much by now that it’s almost impossible to hear how radical this was during Bach’s time. But one group of artists knows how to ignite that revolutionary experience. The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout perform the Brandenburg Five in concert, coming up on The Bach Hour.
BM: Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99.5 WCRB. You might say that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos fall into that “familiar genius” category. They’re performed a lot. But that in no way diminishes their status as some of the greatest instrumental works by Bach – or any composer. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, like the other five works in the collection, has a unique character that’s especially invigorating to hear in concert.
And our program today features another “five” from Bach, namely the Cantata No. 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin, or “Where shall I flee.” You can find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you can also hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
The Cantata No. 5 draws its musical DNA from a hymn that was well known during Bach’s day. And as with so many of these chorales, Bach wrote at least a couple of organ preludes based on it. Here is one of them, with organist Hans Fagius.
BM: Far from being a simple exercise in virtuosity, the organ preludes Bach wrote with chorales at their center are intended to communicate the ideas of the text of those hymn tunes. In the case of the prelude you just heard, the constant running figures of the top voices reflect its title: “Where shall I flee.” Hans Fagius was the organist at the Mission Church in Uppsala, Sweden.
With that same chorale at its center, Bach expands on the theme of running away in the opening of the Cantata No. 5. Wo soll ich fliehen hin captures the essence of the text – “Where shall I flee since I am burdened with many great sins?” And that sense of flight is captured in the instruments and voices imitating each other in rapid fire to create a sort of “chase in sound.” Simultaneously, it’s all grounded by that same chorale tune.
After the opening movement, the bass soloist describes those sins as something that covers the believer’s entire spirit, and that one single drop of holy blood “cleanses the blemishes.” Then that one drop becomes a flowing stream as a viola soloist accompanies the tenor soloist for the words, “Pour yourself richly, divine fountain. Wash over me with bloody streams.”
BM: This imagery of blood probably comes across as kind of gruesome to most modern ears. But if the text connects us to a theology based in suffering as a pathway to redemption, Bach’s music softens the message, as in the alto solo that follows. As the soloist sings “fear and pain need not be a danger any more,” an oboe plays the chorale tune that anchored the opening movement.
BM: The unsung words to that chorale are a prayer: “You have redeemed me. The sins I’ve committed you have entombed in the grave.” It’s an embedded message, Bach’s way of reassuring an audience that would have known those words by heart.
The bass aria that follows is as confident, and even defiant, as they come, with a ferociously difficult solo trumpet accompaniment to drive the point home.
Remember, you can find a translation of the text for this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is a performance now of the Cantata No. 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin - “Where shall I flee since I am burdened with many great sins?” - featuring soprano Joanne Lunn, alto William Towers, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.
BM: The Cantata No. 5 by Bach, Wo soll ich fliehen hin, - Where shall I flee? - in a performance by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, and conductor John Eliot Gardiner. The vocal soloists included soprano Joanne Lunn, alto William Towers, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.
Classical WCRB dot org is a source for exploring more about Bach. You’ll find this and past programs available on-demand, as well as videos, links, and interviews. Again, all of that is at Classical WCRB dot org.
There’s something special about the set of six pieces known as the Brandenburg Concertos. And that’s not just my own opinion. That’s how Bach felt about them, too. We don’t know precisely when he wrote them, and there’s no record of when he performed them, though it’s hard to believe he didn’t show them off at some point.
We do know they’re special, though, because he went to the trouble of writing out a beautiful presentation copy of the score for the Margrave of Brandenburg. Whatever his motivations, it was clear that he wanted to make the best impression possible.
And when it comes to what we call the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, it seems that Bach wanted to make a dual impression, as both composer and harpsichord virtuoso. In Bach’s presentation score, the harpsichord part stands out on two staves that are larger than all the rest.
That’s the musical impression, too. In the first movement, after making you believe that you’re listening to a concerto for three instruments – flute, violin, and harpsichord – Bach gradually writes the flute and violin out of the picture, at least temporarily, leaving the solo harpsichord to take all the attention. The spotlight on that harpsichord was, for all intents and purposes, totally uncharted waters in the history of music. And when it comes to the very elaborate 64-measure cadenza, Harvard University’s Dr. Christoph Wolff writes that it “would find its equivalent only later in the written-out piano concerto cadenzas of Mozart and Beethoven.”
Here is a performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, recorded in concert at the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival. The Festival Chamber Ensemble features flutist Sandra Miller, violinist Robert Mealy, and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout.
That’s the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, in a performance recorded at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in 2009. You heard flute soloist Sandra Miller and violin soloist Robert Mealy. And the fearsome harpsichord solo was performed by Kristian Bezuidenhout.
Earlier you heard an organ prelude based on the same chorale tune that anchors the Cantata No. 5. Let’s revisit that prelude in a different form. With pianists Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen, this is Reinhard Febel’s transcription of Bach’s Wo soll ich fliehen hin.
German composer Reinhard Febel’s dramatic piano four hands re-imagining of Bach’s organ prelude on Wo soll ich fliehen hin, - “Where Shall I Flee” performed here by the Duo Tal and Groethuysen.
That prelude is the piece that began this program, in its original form for organ. And you can hear it again, along with this entire program, when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.