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Electrically Charged Bach, from Joyce Yang

Joyce Yang
KT Kim
Joyce Yang

A performance at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition leads to a thriving concert career, and Philippe Herreweghe leads the Cantata No. 161 on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808 (selections; arr. Jan Koetsier) - Ludwig Güttler Brass Ensemble

Cantata BWV 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde (translation) - Matthew White, counter tenor;  Hans Jorg Mammel, tenor;  Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727 - Håkan Hardenberger, trumpet; Simon Preston, organ (Sorø Church, Denmark)

Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 - Joyce Yang, piano


In 2005, 19-year-old Joyce Yang was the youngest participant in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. And to try to break away from an incredibly talented and capable pack of fellow competitors, she chose to open her solo recital with Bach.


In the course of a month-long competition among a hundred-fifty pianists, there isn’t just one thing that sets apart the winners. But even so, to one degree or another, Bach helped out in this case. Joyce Yang won the Silver Medal, launching what has become a thriving solo career in the years since.


The youthful, electric energy of Joyce Yang at the Van Cliburn is coming up on The Bach Hour.


Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH. To be honest, I have very mixed feelings about music competitions. Judging something that is, by nature, subjective and interpretive, can distort what composers write and the way performers play. But I grew up in Fort Worth, and my mother was a huge fan of the Van Cliburn, so I heard a lot about it. That and other competitions shine a spotlight on musicians we might not otherwise hear from. So when Joyce Yang emerged as an audience favorite at the 2005 Van Cliburn, it seemed like, maybe, the competition was fulfilling one of its purposes. You’ll hear one of Yang’s medal winning performances later in the program

Also on the program today is the Cantata No. 161, Komm, du süße Todesstunde, or “Come, o sweet hour of death.” You’ll find a complete translation of that piece when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program on-demand and find more resources to explore Bach. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s keyboard works don’t just make good choices for competitions; they also work in settings for other instruments. Here are selections from the English Suite No. 3, with the Ludwig Güttler Brass Ensemble, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 808]

That’s the Ludwig Güttler Brass Ensemble, with an arrangement of movements from Bach’s English Suite No. 3, arranged by the Dutch composer Jan Koetsier.

Bach’s sacred works are, by and large, geared towards looking forward with hope. And in the Lutheran theology of Bach’s time, that perspective meant looking forward to the afterlife. It’s something we’re perhaps a bit less comfortable with these days. But in the difficult world in which Bach lived, the reassurance of unification with the divine offered a form of strength in the face of hardship.

In the composer’s Cantata 161, the dual nature of death – both fearsome and tempting – is expressed by the words, “Come, o sweet hour of death, when my spirit laps honey out of the lion’s mouth. Make my departure sweet…” And as countertenor sings those words, a chorale tune quietly emerges in the organ accompaniment. It’s the Passion Chorale, a reminder that Jesus has preceded the believer in going through the pain and transformation of death.


A tenor soloist then compares the world to a rose: beautiful, but with innumerable thorns. And as the soloist sings, “to mortal ash and earth I shall be ground through death,” the music descends.


Only to turn around, vividly and emotionally expressing the words, “the pure radiance of my soul will then blaze like the angels.”


As the alto soloist returns, the approach of death is closer, and the believer looks forward to “a gentle sleep,”


… and hears the strikes of the final hour:


The two recorders from the opening of the cantata then return, laying the groundwork for a gorgeous chorus and final statement of the Passion Chorale that look forward to such a radiant afterlife that death has lost any ability to inspire fear.

Remember, you’ll find a translation of this piece from Emmanuel Music at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 161 with countertenor Matthew White, tenor Hans Jörg Mammel, and Collegium Vocale of Ghent, all conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 161]

The Cantata No. 161 by Bach, Komm, du süße Todesstunde, or “Come, o sweet hour of death,” in a performance featuring countertenor Matthew White and tenor Hans Jörg Mammel. Philippe Herreweghe conducted Collegium Vocale of Ghent.

The Passion Chorale that plays such a pivotal role in the meaning of that cantata is also one on which Bach based an organ prelude. Here is a version of that prelude with trumpeter Hokan Hardenberger and organist Simon Preston.

[MUSIC – BWV 727]

A chorale prelude based on the Passion Chorale, one of the most significant building blocks of Bach’s sacred music. Trumpeter Hokan Hardenberger was joined by organist Simon Preston.

One of the most mind-bending experiences a musician can undertake is a competition. Everything you’ve been taught previously about personality and interpretation is suddenly being judged, literally, against others. Maintaining a healthy perspective about music and its inherent emotional and communicative power can become almost impossible. When Joyce Yang was 19, she was a Silver Medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she attributed that career-launching success to an approach that reflects the kind of pure logic of a teenager. She said, “I played for the audience, and they responded.” Here is one of the performances that won her that medal. Joyce Yang is the pianist in Bach’s Overture in the French Style, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 831]

That’s a performance recorded in concert at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Joyce Yang performed Bach’s Overture in the French Style in part of a recital that won her the Silver Medal at the age of just 19.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program again on-demand, just 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.