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Angelic Grace Transforms a Bach Sonata

Violinist Lara St. John and harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet standing on a sunny pathway with their instruments
courtesy of the artists
Lara St. John & Marie-Pierre Langlamet

On The Bach Hour, violinist Lara St. John and harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet bring an uncommon warmth, color, and resonance to the composer's Violin Sonata No. 1, a piece originally scored with harpsichord, and John Eliot Gardiner leads the Cantata No. 150.

On the program:

Suite from the E major Partita for violin, BWV 1006 (arr. Sergei Rachmaninoff) - Olga Kern, piano

Cantata BWV 150 Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (translation) - Gillian Keith, soprano;  Daniel Taylor, countertenor;  Charles Daniels, tenor;  Stephen Varcoe, bass;  Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1014 - Lara St. John, violin;  Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harp

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (trans. Leopold Stokowski) - BBC Philharmonic, Matthias Bamert, conductor

TRANSCRIPT:

 J.S. Bach’s Sonatas for violin and harpsichord could be called “sleepers.” That’s not to say they’re boring or uninteresting, but they’re not acclaimed as “genius” with the same fervor as the unaccompanied violin works. But that also means that the Bach violin sonatas aren’t quite as weighed down by historical baggage.

Which makes them ideally suited for a re-casting: with the violin joined by the sparkling colors of the harp.

This performance by violinist Lara St. John and harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet is coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, and welcome to The Bach Hour, from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. I’m Brian McCreath. On today’s program, along with Bach’s music in re-cast for violin and harp, you’ll hear the Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or “Lord, I long for you.”  And as always, you can find a translation of that piece by visiting us online at classicalwcrb.org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand.  Again, that’s at classicalwcrb.org

Before that cantata, though, here is another re-imagining of Bach’s music. Sergei Rachmaninoff went somewhat beyond the idea of a simple transcription when he arranged movements from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, resulting in a really fun combination of the voices of two great composers. Here is pianist Olga Kern.

[MUSIC – BWV 1006]

Pianist Olga Kern brings a muscular, extroverted approach to her playing, carrying on a particularly Russian legacy. And that legacy owes quite a bit to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who arranged these three movements from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Bach was a young man working in the town of Arnstadt when he wrote a Cantata entitled Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or “Lord, I long for you,” later given the number 150 in the Bach works catalog.  It’s one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, maybe even the first, but it expresses a dynamic similar to many of the cantatas that were still to be written in Leipzig:  the believer’s experience of a difficult earthly existence, and the power of faith in enduring it.

A delicate instrumental sinfonia sets a hushed tone at the outset before the choir enters with a verse from Psalm 25.  It’s an expression of longing and hope for the divine through a layered motet style Bach would have learned from composers like Dietrich Buxtehude.

A short solo for the soprano sets up a remarkable chorus.  For the Psalm text, “Lead me in your Truth and teach me,” Bach plays on the similarity between the German word for “lead” – “leite” – and the word for “ladder” – “Leiter” – to musically express the believer’s aspirations, climbing a tonal ladder that runs through every part of the chorus and on up to the violins.

[MUSIC]

After a trio for alto, tenor, and bass, a final chorus is built on a chaconne, or repeating bass figure.  Johannes Brahms was so taken with the power of this movement that, more than a century later, he used it as the basis for the final movement of his Fourth Symphony.

Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or “Lord, I long for you,” with soprano Gillian Keith, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephen Varcoe. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.

[MUSIC – BWV 150]

The Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or “Lord, I long for you,” in a performance at the Johann Sebastian Bach Church in Arnstadt during John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000.  Gardiner led the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with soprano soloist Gillian Keith, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephen Varcoe.

If ever there was a recording that makes irrelevant any line between historically informed performance and modern adaptation, it’s the collaboration between harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet and violinist Lara St. John. It’s definitely not what early-music scholars would define as an authentic sound. Yet the notes you hear in the Violin and Flute Sonatas they recorded are still only those originally written by Bach for violin and harpsichord.

Here are Marie-Pierre Langlamet and Lara St. John in Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in B minor.

[MUSIC – BWV 1014]

J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1, originally for violin and harpsichord, and performed here by violinist Lara St. John and harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet.

If Langlamet and St. John stuck to the script to create their vision of Bach, one person who deviated quite seriously, but still with respect for Bach, was the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski wrote a series of Bach orchestral transcriptions for the Philadelphia Orchesta BESIDES the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor…including this Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. Matthias Bamert leads the BBC Philharmonic.

[MUSIC – BWV 542]

Leopold Stokowski’s transcription of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, in a performance by the BBC Philharmonic and conductor Matthias Bamert.

Remember, you can hear this program again at our web site, classicalwcrb.org, where you can also find more resources and information about Bach. Again, that’s all at classicalwcrb.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.