Alessio Bax and Godowsky's Vision of Bach
On The Bach Hour, the Italian-born, U.S.-based pianist performs rich, deeply textured arrangements of works Bach originally wrote for single string instruments, created a century ago by the legendary Leopold Godowsky.
On the program:
Bourree from Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009 (arr. Leopold Godowsky) - Alessio Bax, piano
Cantata, BWV 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (translation) - Joanne Lunn, soprano; Richard Wyn Roberts, alto; Julian Podger, tenor; Gerald Finley, bass; Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (arr. Leopold Godowsky) - Alessio Bax, piano
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230 (translation) - Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Brian McCreath (BMcC): There’s a spare intimacy in the opening of Bach’s First Violin Sonata. But as with so much of this composer’s music, this piece can also be something very different.
Certainly not spare, maybe still intimate, but now with an undeniably different flavor.In 1923 pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky created a series of transcriptions of works that Bach wrote for a single string instrument. You’ll hear the results, with pianist Alessio Bax, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, and welcome to The Bach Hour, from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, part of WGBH. I’m Brian McCreath. Each week on the program we explore the vast range of instrumental masterpieces and sacred vocal music by J.S. Bach. And occasionally we hear the added voices of those composers who have been inspired by Bach’s music, as is the case today, with transcriptions from Leopold Godowsky.
Also on the program today, you’ll hear a work that follows a winding and sometimes not very easy path, the Cantata No. 3, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, or “Ah, God, how much heartache.” If you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece you’ll find a link at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.
Leopold Godowsky is one of countless composers over the centuries to look into Bach’s music and see the potential for a new artistic statement. It’s not an impulse to improve the work of the Baroque master so much as it is a way of honoring Bach in a new context. Here’s one example. This is pianist Alessio Bax with Godowsky’s transcription of the Bouree from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.
That’s just a small, jewel-like example of the luster Leopold Godowsky applied to Bach’s music when he transcribed several works originally written for solo string instruments. Alessio Bax was the pianist with the Bouree from Bach’s Third Cello Suite.Stay tuned for an even more dramatic transformation from Godowsky later on in the program.
Dramatic transformation is at the heart of Bach’s Cantata No. 3, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, or “Ah, God, how much heartache must I encounter at this time.” As with all of Bach’s cantatas, that title simply reflects the opening line sung by the choir. But it doesn’t really tell us what this piece is about. It’s really the next line that tells us where we’re going. “The narrow path I’ll follow to heaven is full of trouble.” This is a journey, specifically the difficult journey a believer travels during his or her earthly life, before reaching an afterlife with the divine in heaven. The difficulty of that journey comes through in the opening chorus, which Bach sets as a lament. Slowly descending chromatic lines give the “trouble” along that “narrow path” a plodding, determined context.
Only to inject a slight note of hope at the end of the movement as the sopranos ascend to their final note, symbolizing an ascent to heaven.
An exchange between chorale statements and solo interjections makes it clear that this challenging journey is one for both an individual believer and the wider community. The bass soloist expands on those challenges in an aria with cello accompaniment that is itself a challenge for the performers, but which ultimately expresses trust in the divine.
Later, the soprano and alto soloists combine for a duet, one that conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes as “proof that, through joyful singing, one can win the battle to rid oneself of the cares that revolve within the troubled mind. [It’s Bach’s] equivalent of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’”
And you may hear an echo of that first movement, when the twists and turns of the journey seemed tortuous. But now, even though those twists and turns are still part of the picture, they’re embraced with joy and hope.
If you’d like to see a translation of this piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 3, with soprano Joanne Lunn, alto Richard Wyn Roberts, tenor Julian Podger, and bass Gerald Finley. John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, here on The Bach Hour.
As Bach’s Cantata No. 3 comes to a close, the choir sings a prayer for purity of faith, which is expressed in a robust and strong performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
He led the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, with soprano Joanne Lunn, alto Richard Wyn Roberts, tenor Julian Podger, and bass Gerald Finley.
Among the countless composers to have transcribed Bach’s music for the piano, Leopold Godowsky is among the boldest. Rather than transcribing orchestral works or cantata movements, which have built in part writing of one kind or another, Godowsky chose to focus on Bach’s pieces for solo string instruments. These are pieces in which so much of what Bach communicates is only implied - not written on the manuscript paper, the composer asking each of our ears to fill in the blanks. That makes them something like a minimalist outline. And that allowed Godowsky to apply his own sense what’s meant for those blanks.
Here is pianist Alessio Bax with one example. This is Godowsky’s transcription of Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 1, here on The Bach Hour.
A rich interpretation of what’s implied and what’s possible in the Solo Violin Sonata No. 1 by Bach, transcribed by Leopold Godowsky and performed here by pianist Alessio Bax.
Earlier in the program, you heard the Cantata No. 3, led by John Eliot Gardiner. When he’s asked how people should get into Bach’s music if they aren’t very familiar with it, he often says that you should start with the motets, a collection of purely choral works that aren’t rooted in a particular day or time of year. And here is one of the shorter motets Bach wrote. This is Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, or “Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations.” John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir, here on The Bach Hour.
A short motet by Johann Sebastian Bach: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, or “Praise the Lord, All Ye Nations.” John Eliot Gardiner led the Monteverdi Choir.
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.