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Halls Conducts Bach's Ascension Oratorio

Matthew Halls conducting
Jon C. Meyers
Matthew Halls

On The Bach Hour, Matthew Halls leads the Retrospect Ensemble in a brilliant expression of the multi-dimensional beauty of the composer's art.

On the program:

Flute Sonata in E-flat, BWV 1031:  II. Siciliano (arr. Crespo) - German Brass

Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11 (translation) - Carolyn Sampson, soprano;  Iestyn Davies, countertenor;  James Gilchrist, tenor;  Peter Harvey, bass;  Retrospect Ensemble, Matthew Halls, conductor

Concerto for two harpsichords, BWV 1061a - Peter Sykes and Mahan Esfahani, harpsichords



Brian McCreath: The brilliance of trumpets and a punchy dance rhythm:  two dead giveaways in Bach’s music that we’re celebrating, right?  Well, not entirely, in the case of the Ascension Oratorio.  This festive sound is only one slice in the range of emotions Bach brings us in this piece, and you’ll experience all of it, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath;  welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston.  On the program today, along with the Ascension Oratorio, you’ll hear a harpsichord duo as performed by one of Boston’s own great musicians, Peter Sykes, and Mahan Esfahani, who’s now one of the most exciting artists in London.  And along the way, if you’d like a translation of the Ascension Oratorio, just head to our web site at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

As you just heard, the brilliance of trumpets is a key part of the Ascension Oratorio.  But here’s a more introspective sound from those instruments in an arrangement of the Siciliano from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E-flat by German Brass.

[MUSIC – BWV 1031-2]

The gorgeous Siciliano, from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E-flat, in an arrangement for the 10 players of German Brass.

Ascension Day is one of the major holidays in the church year, and it’s packed with theological significance and emotional weight.  Here were Jesus’s disciples, having already gone through the trauma of their messiah being executed and returning to them in risen form.  Then, in a moment, he’s gone from them again, at least in physical form.

So, with that remarkable story in mind, in 1734, went beyond the normal cantata form to write an oratorio, a narrative piece that depicts a story, somewhere between a cantata and an opera.

The Ascension Oratorio launches with a festive chorus of praise, with upwardly moving musical lines to symbolize the Ascension.  But Bach also builds in lines that move downward, musically depicting the contradictory nature of the entire piece.  There is joy and glory in Jesus’s ascension – and grief and sadness in his departure.

The tenor soloist, narrating the story as the Evangelist, sets the action in motion with a quote from the Gospel of Luke.  The bass soloist follows in the voice of a believer, surprised and suddenly desperate at Jesus’s departure.

The alto soloist takes up that theme in a heartbreaking aria.  You may recognize it from the Mass in B minor, where Bach used it several years later for the Agnus Dei.  In this setting, it’s a song of longing and sadness.


The aria ends with the words, “just stay a while here;  otherwise I’ll be completely undone with grief.”  But rather than providing any words of comfort, Bach moves the story forward.  The Evangelist describes the ascent itself with words from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark, ending with, “He sits at the right hand of God.” 

After a subdued chorale of resignation from the community voice, the Evangelist guides the action along with more from Acts.  He joins in a duet with the bass to depict the two angels in white garments who tell the disciples not to worry - Jesus will return. 

That changes the mood of the disciples to one of joy, culminating in a light, innocent aria for the soprano soloist, who sings, “Your love remains behind, so that here, in mortal time, I can refresh myself in spirit.”


With that change of understanding and expression, the piece returns to the festive sound of the opening, in a chorale setting.  But a lingering sense of sadness remains.  As the late Craig Smith of Boston’s Emmanuel Music wrote,

“The B minor of the chorale never loses its identity but is simply swallowed up in the D Major. Bach understands the melancholy of being left behind, and profoundly includes it here in this ostensibly joyous festival.”

Remember, a translation of the text of this piece is available at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.

This performance of Bach’s Ascension Oratorio features soprano soloist Carolyn Sampson, alto Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.  They’re joined by the Retrospect Ensemble, all conducted by Matthew Halls, here on The Bach Hour.

[MUSIC – BWV 11]

J.S. Bach’s Ascension Oratorio, in a performance by the Retrospect Ensemble and conductor Matthew Halls.  The soloists included soprano Carolyn Sampson, alto Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.

Coming up, two harpsichordists dispense with an orchestra to perform a concerto on their own.

You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston.

Harpsichordists Peter Sykes and Mahan Esfahani visited our studio in 2006, bringing along Bach’s Concerto in C for two harpsichords.  And as Peter Sykes says, the word “concerto” doesn’t necessarily mean the soloists need an orchestra.

Peter Sykes: The concerti that Bach wrote were probably the most mutable of the forms of which he wrote. A lot of the concerti were originally written for one instrument and then arranged for another. The forms in which they're left to us is rarely the form in which they originated. This harpsichord concerto for two instruments is probably the only one that was originally written for two harpsichords, and it is the only one for which the orchestra is optional. The string players play maybe 15 to 20 notes that are not represented by the harpsichord parts. Mostly it's just doubling. They add a few little extra licks here and there, and if we remember, we'll put them in. Of course, you know, string players are our friends and it's nice to have them, but we don't really need them in order for this piece to be complete.

Brian McCreath: That’s Peter Sykes, and here he is with Mahan Esfahani with Bach’s Concerto in C for two harpsichords.

[MUSIC – BWV 1061a]

A Concerto in C for two harpsichords, with soloists Peter Sykes and Mahan Esfahani, recorded in our studio in September of 2006.

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.