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Bach, Through a British Lens

Jonathan Plowright
courtesy of the artist
Jonathan Plowright

The English pastoral tradition of Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bax, and others meets Bach's music through the interpretations of pianist Jonathan Plowright, and Ton Koopman leads the Cantata 116 on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047 - Friedemann Immer, trumpet; Christopher Krueger, recorder; Marc Schachman, oboe; Daniel Stepner, violin; Boston Baroque; Martin Pearlman, conductor

Andante from Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047 (trans. Eugene Goossens) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Cantata BWV 116 Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (translation) - Sibylla Rubens, soprano;  Annette Markert, alto;  Christoph Prégardien, tenor;  Klaus Mertens, bass;  Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor

Fantasia in G, BWV 572 (trans. Arnold Bax) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727 (trans. William Walton) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn, BWV 648 (trans. John Ireland) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605 (trans. Constant Lambert) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Ach bleib' bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 649 (trans. Ralph Vaughan Williams) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

In dulci jubilo, BWV 729 (trans. Lord Berners) - Jonathan Plowright, piano

Transcript:

[MUSIC]

Bach’s music speaks to each age in its own way. And sometimes, the age speaks back.

[MUSIC]

In 1931, a British pianist named Harriet Cohen invited just about all the well-known English composers of the day to transcribe Bach’s music for her. What they came up with, eventually published in a single collection, is a remarkable fusion of Bach’s baroque craft and what we now call the English Pastoral tradition.

[MUSIC]

The Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, with pianist Jonathan Plowright, is coming up on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC]

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. Bach himself was a constant musical explorer. He regularly studied music from far-flung corners of Europe to learn how other cultures communicated in music. Then he would transform that same music, imprinting it with his own North German language while retaining the core of the original. A couple of centuries later Harriet Cohen’s British colleagues turned that process around, creating works that conjure thoughts of tramping through the green hills of England while retaining Bach’s through and through, as you’ll hear later on.

Also on the program today, you’ll hear the Cantata No. 116, Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, or “O prince of peace, Lord Jesus Christ.” And you can find a translation of that work from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

In the early 1970’s, the idea of researching and performing Baroque music on instruments authentic to the time the music was written and in the style the composers would have heard – historically informed performance, in short hand – was beginning to take on an inevitable momentum. Primarily based in Europe, this movement found a willing partner Stateside in Martin Pearlman, who founded Banchetto Musicale in 1973. It was the first permanent Baroque orchestra in this country, later changing its name to Boston Baroque. Here they are, in one of their many recordings, with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, featuring trumpeter Friedemann Immer, recorder soloist Christopher Krueger, oboist Marc Schachman, and violinist Daniel Stepner.

[MUSIC – BWV 1047]

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 by Bach, performed by Boston Baroque and conductor Martin Pearlman. The soloists included trumpeter Friedemann Immer, recorder soloist Christopher Krueger, oboist Marc Schachman, and violinist Daniel Stepner.

The middle movement of that piece, as in just about any Baroque concerto, is a lyrical interlude separating two flashier, more virtuosic outer movements. And there’s a deep soulful quality embedded in that lyricism, something you can hear in a piano transcription by Twentieth century English composer and conductor Eugene Goossens. Jonathan Plowright is the pianist.

[MUSIC – BWV 1047 piano]

Eugene Goossens was a British conductor and composer, and in the early 1930’s, while he was the Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he was one of several composers who contributed to what became known as the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen. Jonathan Plowright was the pianist in Goossens’ transcription of the middle movement of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. And you’ll hear more from this same collection of transcriptions a bit later in the hour.

Bach’s Cantata No. 116, Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, or “O prince of peace, Lord Jesus Christ,” is a piece that seems to have a split personality. Its first and last movements are warm and inviting, with soft, comforting textures. But between those two bookends are four short movements that are spare, dark, even unsettling.

It might be confusing until you look at what’s behind it. Bach, ever the musical theologian, is simply reflecting the character of two of the Bible readings associated with the Sunday for which the Cantata 116 was written. Both concern the Last Judgment, or Armageddon. But in one of those passages, taken from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the Second Coming results in a joyful passage to paradise. The other picture, from the Gospel of Matthew, warns of an ordeal and suffering through a descent into Hell. Both are integral to the theology of Bach’s time, and both are reflected in the music.

As the piece begins, the chorus praises the divine as a strong helper in times of distress, the orchestra providing a radiant cushion for a chorale tune.

But as the perspective shifts to the individual, anxiety dominates, as the alto soloist sings about the agony of the “enraged Judge,” accompanied through an angular line by a solo oboe d’amore.

Then, in the emotional center of the cantata, a trio of soloists sings a sort of confession in music, first representing the brokenness of the individual believer through a weaving of individual phrases …

[MUSIC EXCERPT]

And then representing the dedication and fortitude of the divine something more like solid block harmonies …

[MUSIC EXCERPT]

Bach ends the piece by taking us back to that more hopeful outlook as the community voice prays for illumination and grace.

Remember, if you’d like to see a translation of the text for this piece, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 116, Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, with soprano Sibylla Rubens, alto Annette Markert, tenor Christoph Prégardien, and bass Klaus Mertens. Ton Koopman conducts the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir.

[MUSIC – BWV 116]

The Cantata No. 116 by J.S. Bach, Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ or “O prince of peace, Lord Jesus Christ.” Ton Koopman conducted the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, with soprano Sibylla Rubens, alto Annette Markert, tenor Christoph Prégardien, and bass Klaus Mertens.

In 1931, the British pianist Harriet Cohen invited several composer friends to create piano transcriptions of Bach’s music for her, and the list of participants in the project reads like a Who’s Who of mid-century British music, including Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The collection was published as the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, and it’s a fascinating window into what made English music English at the time. Far from direct, note-for-note transcriptions of Bach’s originals, these short pieces use subtle additions alterations of ornaments, harmonies, and phrasing to create a vision of Bach through the prism of the English countryside. Here is a set of them, beginning with a Fantasia in G major, transcribed by Harriet Cohen’s lover, Arnold Bax. Jonathan Plowright is the pianist.

[MUSIC – BWV 572, 727, 648, 605, 649, 729]

Piano works by Bach as filtered through the minds of some of England’s great composers of the 1930s. Jonathan Plowright was the pianist with transcriptions by Arnold Bax, William Walton, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Lord Berners.

Remember, you can hear this program again on-demand 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.

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