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Bach's "Keyboard Practice," with Jeremy Denk

Pianist Jeremy Denk in a suit, sitting at a piano and looking thoughtfully at it
Shervin Lainez
Opus 3 Artists
Jeremy Denk

On The Bach Hour, a prosaic name obscures the brilliance and emotional impact of the composer’s music, performed by one of today’s most thoughtful and dynamic pianists.

On the program:

Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 "Little" (arr. Rechtman) - Montreal Festival Wind Orchestra, Mordecai Rechtman, conductor

Cantata BWV 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (translation) - Malin Hartelius, soprano;  Robin Tyson, counter tenor;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Partita No. 4 in D, BWV 828 - Jeremy Denk, piano


Brian McCreath “Keyboard Practice, composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits.”

Those are the words inscribed on the title page of the first music published by J.S. Bach.

The Partita No. 4 from that set of so-called “practice pieces” ranges from a majestic, royal Overture, to a daringly slow Allemande, to this sparkling Gigue, and you’ll hear all of it with pianist Jeremy Denk, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99.5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. Each week our program highlights Bach’s genius through instrumental masterpieces like the Partita No. 4, and through sacred vocal works, like the Cantata No. 17, which you’ll hear in just a bit. And you can find a translation of that piece, as well as the opportunity to hear this program again on demand at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s own instrumental home base was the pipe organ, which derives its sound world through the movement of air. That’s a characteristic Mordechai Rechtman highlighted when he arranged several organ works for wind ensemble. From that collection, this is the Fugue in G minor, known as the “Little” Fugue. Mordechai Rechtman conducts the Montreal Festival Wind Orchestra.


Brian McCreath Mordechai Rechtman was the Principal Bassoonist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for 45 years, a tenure that provided plenty of groundwork for arranging for wind instruments. You just heard one of his arrangements, Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor, in a concert performance from the 2007 Montreal Chamber Music Festival. Mordechai Rechtman conducted the Montreal Festival Wind Orchestra.

During the summer and autumn months of the 1720’s, Bach wrote a series of cantatas based on the teachings of Jesus as told in the Bible. From one of those stories, that of Jesus healing 10 lepers, Bach was inspired to write the Cantata No. 17, Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, or “He who offers thanks, praises me.”

The first part of the piece is a lot like many of Bach’s cantatas, with a sequence of movements that express praise and thanks. A bright opening chorus, based on a part of Psalm 50 expresses thanks for the world’s abundance through layered entrances, first by one soloist, then by another, followed by the high voices of the chorus, and finally by the full chorus.

A light innocent aria for the soprano brings a different sound to the same message: that the divine deserves thanks for the fullness of creation.

But then the tenor soloist sings a short excerpt from that story about the lepers highlighting the fact that, of the 10 who were healed, only one thanked Jesus. And he … was a Samaritan.


Brian McCreath It’s an important point. Samaritans were despised among those to whom Jesus told this story. The message is that, if the Samaritan gives thanks, so can the believer who’s hearing Bach’s music.

Remember, you can find a translation of this piece at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of Bach’s Cantata No.17 with soprano Malin Hartelius, alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. John Eliot Gardiner directs the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.


Brian McCreath In his notes for this performance, conductor John Eliot Gardiner singles out the final chorale as the highlight of Bach’s Cantata No. 17, Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, or “He who offers thanks, praises me.” It comes as something of a surprise after the exuberance of the preceding movements, but when taken in the context of the work’s theme of thanks and humility, it reflects back on those moments of exuberance in a way that strengthens their meaning.

This performance of the Cantata No. 17 was directed by Gardiner, with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. The vocal soloists included soprano Malin Hartelius, alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

If you’re someone who’s ever studied a musical instrument, or especially if you’ve had kids who’ve studied instruments, maybe the word “practice” and “refresh” don’t naturally occupy the same space in your mind. The common vision of practice is that it’s a part of musical life that’s necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable, and certainly not refreshing.

Not so for Bach, though. When you take a look at what we know about how he spent his time and what values he seems to have imparted to others, it becomes easy to believe that, for him, daily practice really was a renewal. In his world, hard work was an expression of integrity, and even faith. Beyond that, even those who have a hard time being enthusiastic about the act of practicing have to admit that it is refreshing to feel the growth in ability that comes with that hard work.

“Keyboard Practice” is what Bach called his first collection of music to be published, and he went on to describe it as being written “for music lovers, to refresh their spirits.”

Here is one of the pieces from that collection, the Partita No. 4 in D major, performed by pianist Jeremy Denk.


Brian McCreath This Partita is the fourth such piece in a collection Bach called Clavier Ubung, or Keyboard Practice, Jeremy Denk was the pianist in this performance of the Partita No. 4.

Remember, there is more of The Bach Hour awaiting you online at Classical W C R B dot org. You’ll find this and past episodes available to hear on demand, as well as videos and links to more resources. Again, that’s all at Classical W C R B 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 on The Bach Hour.