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Oboist Albrecht Mayer and the Operatic Drama of Bach

Berlin Philharmonic Principal Oboist Albrecht Mayer
Harald Hoffmann
Deutsche Grammophon
Berlin Philharmonic Principal Oboist Albrecht Mayer

On The Bach Hour, the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic explores the expressive terrain of the composer's cantatas, transformed into a concerto.

On the program:

Pièce d'orgue (Fantasia) in G, BWV 572 - Hans Fagius, organ (1724 Cahman organ at Kristine Church, Falun, Sweden)

Cantata BWV 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (translation) - Dorothee Mields, soprano;  Jan Kobow, tenor;  Peter Kooy, bass;  Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, director

Concerto for Oboe d'Amore, from Cantata BWV 209 - Albrecht Mayer, oboe;  The English Concert, Julian Podger, conductor

Chorale Prelude:  Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot, BWV 678 - Fretwork



Brian McCreath J.S. Bach never wrote an opera, but the drama and story-telling embedded in his roughly 200 surviving cantatas often have something of an operatic quality.

And just as Mozart’s sense of operatic drama founda a sort of second platform in his piano concertos, Bach’s sense of theatre makes great source material for concertos..

Coming up, Albrecht Mayer, the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, draws from a cantata to create a new concerto by Bach.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston, 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH. While his day-to-day working life involves navigating the most demainding orchestral scores of the last 200 years, Albrecht Mayer’s musical identity is rooted in Bach. That aspect of his life took tangible form in 2010 when he released “Voices of Bach,” and you’ll hear part of that recording later on.

Also on the program today is the Cantata No. 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, or “Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God.” And you’ll find a translation of that piece by visiting our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again, on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

For now, here is one of my favorite organ works by Bach. It begins in a light, gossamer voice, followed by a majestic middle section in six voices. Then it turns troubled and tumultuous, but very gradually transitions to a position of steadfast solidity.

This is thee Fantasy in G major, performed here by Hans Fagius, here on The Bach Hour.


Brian McCreath That’s the Fantasy in G major, or, as Bach labelled it, the Piéce d’orgue, performed by Hans Fagius.

Like that organ Fantasy, Bach’s Cantata No. 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, or “Lord Jesus Christ, true Man and God,” uses contrast to build a sense of drama. But now the contrast is both musical and symbolic, as Bach explores the dual nature of Jesus – both human and divine.

It begins with a chorus that weaves together two chorales. One, sung by the choir, is a 16th century hymn that asks for mercy. The other is a German Agnus Dei tune that emerges only through the instrumental texture, but it’s a tune so familiar to Bach’s audience that he could count on them recognizing it.

That musical weaving results in a thematic weaving. The imagery of Jesus’s death is placed side by side with a Gospel reading in which a blind man asks for mercy and is healed by Jesus.

The tenor then narrows the focus to an individual believer and the hope that, when he or she dies, Jesus will be there. The words to describe death are terrifically graphic: “When everything shudders at the last hour, and when a cold death-sweat bathes limbs already stiff, when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs and this heart breaks: Enough, that faith knows then that Jesus stands with me.”

The soprano expands on that hope, singing that, “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.” Musically, death is expressed through a simple series of repeated notes, creating an amazing sense of stillness.


Brian McCreath The stillness you hear is then interrupted by the bass soloist, who sings, “When one day the trumpets ring out, then think of me well, my God.” And clearly Bach couldn’t resist the temptation to drive that point home with an actual trumpet.


Brian McCreath And as this movement continues, it transforms. Lyrical passages based on the chorale tune from the first movement join with these forceful trumpet statements to create a vision of trust in both the comfort and the strength of belief.

Here is the Cantata No. 127 with soprano Dorothee Mields, tenor Jan Kobow, and bass Peter Kooy. They’re joined by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and their director, Philippe Herreweghe, here on The Bach Hour.


Brian McCreath In his notes for this piece, the late Craig Smith of Boston’s Emmanuel Music wrote that Bach’s Cantata 127 is “so removed from the norm of either religious or operatic music of the period that it is hard to understand where [it] came from … There is simply nothing in German Lutheranism or in any other religious tradition to prepare us for ideas as complex and all-encompassing as [those] presented in this work.”

This performance of the Cantata 127 featured soprano Dorothee Mields, tenor Jan Kobow, and bass Peter Kooy. They were joined by Collegium Vocale of Ghent and their director, Philippe Herreweghe.

Albrecht Mayer is the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, and he grew up with Bach’s music, both in his earliest days of taking piano lessons and as a member of a boys’ choir. In his position with the Philharmonic, he plays every kind of concert music imaginable, but he always hears Bach’s music at the root of it.

For his recording entitled “Voices of Bach,” Mayer worked with Andreas Tarkmann to create new concertos by Bach. Here is one of them, drawn from the Cantata No. 209, He knowns not what sorrow is. Albrecht Mayer performs on the oboe d’amore and directs The English Concert.


Brian McCreath Movements from Bach’s Cantata No. 209 form the basis for this concerto for oboe d’amore, created for oboist Albrecht Mayer. He was the soloist and director of The English Concert.

And here another re-casting of Bach’s music. This is the viol consort Fretwork, with their transcription of a gentle chorale prelude on Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot, or “These are the holy ten commandments.”


Brian McCreath A gorgeous little prelude by Bach on the chorale “These are the holy ten commandments,” originally for organ and performed here by the ensemble Fretwork.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program again, just 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.