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The Subtle Elegance of Perahia's Bach

Murray Perahia
Nana Watanabe
Murray Perahia

On The Bach Hour, Murray Perahia is the soloist in the composer's Concerto in D, and Ton Koopman leads a cantata inspired by the transformation of water into wine.

On the program:

Partita No. 3 in F (orig. in E), BWV 1006 - Hopkinson Smith, lute

Cantata BWV 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? (translation) - Caroline Stam, soprano;  Elisabeth von Magnus, alto;  Paul Agnew, tenor;  Klaus Mertens, bass;  Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Ton Koopman, director

Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D, BWV 1054 - Murray Perahia, piano and conductor;  Academy of St. Martin in the Fields



The reviews reflect the artist: Impressive and unfailingly positive, but distinctly lacking in overheated hyperbole: “Assured playing and elegant lyricism” … “vivid but not overdone” … “good taste and musical insight.” The words the critics choose to write about Murray Perahia’s Bach concerto performances say a lot about this musician…an artist whose playing rewards close attention to the subtlest of details. Murray Perahia’s Bach is 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.

Murray Perahia has been one of the world’s most admired pianists ever since he won the Leeds Internaitonal Piano Competition in the early 1970s. Perahia is one of legions of great performers who honed his art and craft as a young person during summers at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. So when he burst forth from that cocoon he was a fully-formed artist, instantly recognized for his recordings and performances of Beethoven, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. But, as with so many musicians Bach is in special category for Perahia. We’ll discover why later this hour.

And you’ll also hear a Cantata Bach wrote for this day on the Lutheran Church Calendar. It’s the Cantata No. 155, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?, or “My God, how long, ah, how long?,” and you can find a translation of that piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

First, here is a piece Bach originally wrote for a solo violin, but played here on the lute. This is Hopkinson Smith with the Partita No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 995]

Bach’s Partita No. 3, originally for solo violin and later transformed by the composer into a piece for the lute, in a performance by Hopkinson Smith.

Transformation is the thematic heart of most of Bach’s cantatas. And the transformation depicted in the Cantata No. 155 takes inspiration from the particular passage in the Gospel of John that describes a wedding in Cana, in which Jesus turns water into wine.

In Bach’s cantata, that transformation is applied to the experience of an individual believer. As the piece opens, the water from the story is depicted as tears of desperation and emptiness. As the soprano soloist, giving voice to the believer, sings of the “measure of tears always fully granted, the wine of joy lacking” and “all confidence drained away.”


Fellow believers, though, reassure her in a duet for alto and tenor, trying to bolster that drained-away confidence with the words, “You must believe, you must hope.”

Then the bass soloist, in the voice of Christ, returns to those original images with, “it will be only a little time, before, instead of bitter tears, [Jesus] will grant you the wine of comfort and joy.”

With reassurance from both the divine and her community, the soprano is transformed, singing, “Throw yourself, my heart … into the loving arms of the Highest.”


The final chorale returns the narrative to the community voice, singing, “do not be afraid; for when He is most with you, He doesn’t reveal it.”

You can find a complete translation of this piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

This performance of the Cantata No. 155 features soprano Caroline Stam, alto Elisabeth von Magnus, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Klaus Mertens. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir are conducted by Ton Koopman, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC - BWV 155]

J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 155, Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?, or “My God, how long, ah, how long?,” a piece that relates the transformation of water into wine, as described in the Gospel of John, to a transformation in a believer’s heart.

This performance of the Cantata 155 featured conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus, with soprano Caroline Stam, alto Elisabeth von Magnus, tenor Paul Agnew, and bass Klaus Mertens.

Pianist Murray Perahia was born in New York, and very early on, it was clear that he would be a major force in the music world. He spent summers at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont, learning from the likes of Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals. After winning the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972, he developed a close working relationship with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, which eventually evolved into his taking over artistic leadership of the Aldeburgh Festival in the 1980s.

In 1992, though, Perahia’s career was threatened by a bone abnormality in his hand, requiring several surgeries. When Murray Perahia visited Boston as a guest soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I asked him about the importance of Bach’s music during that time.

Murray Perahia: Bach gave me great consolation in that time when I couldn't play, and I constantly listened to Bach. I listened to the cantatas, as many of them as I could. I listened to all the keyboard works, the violin pieces, everything I could listen to.

Brian McCreath: When you're playing Bach, what do those other pieces, the cantatas and the concertos, do to inform your solo Bach playing?

Murray Perahia: Well, lots of things. For instance, Bach is inseparable from the words that he uses. He's a religious composer, and his outlook on life is told to us in the cantatas, and one has to, even in the secular music, embrace his worldview. And so I think it tells us that, and it tells us that no matter how the voice leading is so wonderful, the counterpoint is so wonderful, it does go beyond itself. In other words, it tries to tell us a message, whatever something of happiness, something of sadness, something, whatever he's working on at the moment. And that message is usually complicated. It's not quite simple. So I think there's a lot more to Bach than the surface.

That’s Murray Perahia, in a conversation you can hear at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

And here is Murray Perahia with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in Bach’s Concerto in D major.

[MUSIC – BWV 1054]

Murray Perahia has said that he considers himself a pianist first and foremost, but that when he’s practicing Bach’s music, he’ll sometimes use a harpsichord, just to know what artistic choices might have been available on the instrument Bach used. Then he goes back to the modern piano with a clearer sense of what he wants to hear on his own instrument.

This performance of the Concerto in D major featured Perahia as both soloist and conductor with the Academy of St. Martin the Fields.

Remember, you can hear this and past programs on-demand at our web site, 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.