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Catrin Finch and Bach's Goldbergs

Catrin Finch standing at the side of her harp
Jennie Caldwell
Catrin Finch

On The Bach Hour, one of the composer's crowning masterpieces is channeled through the intimate resonance of the harp, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Cantata No. 61, for Advent.

On the program:

Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (arr. Busoni) - Nikolai Demidenko, piano

Cantata BWV 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland [I] (translation) - Christine Schäfer, soprano;  Werner Güra, tenor;  Gerald Finley;  bass;  Arnold Schoenberg Choir & Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (excerpts;  trans. Catrin Finch) - Catrin Finch, harp


There’s a mystical quality to any performance of the simple tune and its 30 offshoots we now know as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The sense of drama and humanity Bach wrote into this piece is so powerful that it can completely overwhelm the sheer technical genius the Goldbergs represent.  And Welsh harpist Catrin Finch layers onto those qualities the exquisite colors and textures of her chosen instrument. You’ll hear highlights of Catrin Finch’s Goldberg Variations, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I’m Brian McCreath;  welcome to The Bach Hour, from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston.  To go with the Goldbergs, today’s program also features one of Bach’s sacred works for Advent, the Cantata No. 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, or “Now Come, Savior of the heathens.”  You can find a translation of that piece online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll also find this program and others available on demand.  Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.

These days, the period between late November and Christmas is a hectic frenzy of shopping, parties, decorating, and drinking over-priced coffee concoctions with too much whipped cream.  Quite a stark contrast to Bach’s time, when the season of Advent was a time of quiet and contemplative preparation for Christmas.  Those qualities are captured in one of Bach’s preludes on the Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, performed here in Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription by Nikolai Demidenko.


Pianist Nikolai Demidenko with Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of one of the preludes J.S. Bach wrote on the chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. 

The introspective qualities of that chorale prelude reflect one aspect of the liturgical season of Advent.  But Bach had another angle of Advent in mind when he wrote his Cantata No. 61, using the same chorale tune, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland.

In fact, it’s really a couple of different angles, both reflected in a slow, dotted figure rhythm often found in French operatic music of the time.


It symbolizes two things: First, in this piece written for the First Sunday of Advent, it’s a symbolic procession that opens the beginning of the new church year.  Second, it reflects the idea of royalty approaching…. tying it the overall theme of anticipation that defines Advent, when believers await the arrival of Jesus Christ on Christmas.

The piece continues with a recitative and aria for the tenor, asking the Savior to come, inhabit the church, and, as the text says, “uphold the sound teachings and bless the chancel and altar”. 

Then the bass soloist takes on the voice of Jesus, singing, “I stand at the door and knock,” which Bach writes into the music as a pizzicato, or plucked, string accompaniment.


The soprano soloist responds in the voice of an individual believer, singing, “Open yourself, my entire heart, Jesus comes and enters in.” 


Taken on its own, the aria might just be a beautiful solo, but in the context of everything that’s led up to this moment so far, it’s a striking statement, setting aside liturgy and tradition and institution to directly reflect the spiritual experience of an individual.

The final chorale that follows is a short but elaborate Amen, ending with a quiet transcendence.You can find a complete translation of this piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland from December of 2006 at the Musikverein in Vienna with soprano Christine Schäfer, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Gerald Finley.  They’re joined by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna, all conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.


An Advent cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland or “Now Come, Savior of the heathens.”  The Cantata No. 61 was conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and featured soprano Christine Schäfer, tenor Werner Güra, and bass Gerald Finley, along with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and Concentus Musicus of Vienna.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations pose one of the supreme tests for any keyboard artist, both technically and musically.  The modern harp, with its seven pedals and 47 strings, presents its own astonishing technical and physical challenge.  Welsh harpist Catrin Finch couldn’t resist the magic of this piece, though.  Here are highlights of her complete recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.


Bach’s keyboard works are famously malleable, retaining their musical core in all kinds of alternative settings.  But to me, the Goldberg Variations are a bit riskier than the other works.  They’re so personal and intimate that, especially when they’re re-cast for ensembles, it seems like something significant is lost.  But as a piece for solo harp, that intimacy is, if anything, magnified, even in the face of what must be truly mind-boggling challenges in simply negotiating the notes.  Welsh harpist Catrin Finch arranged and recorded the complete Goldberg Variations, and you’ve just heard highlights from that 2009 release. 

Remember, you can hear this program again on demand and learn more about Bach by visiting us at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliar Ros.  I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week, on The Bach Hour.