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Faust Plays Bach's Third Partita

Isabelle Faust
Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust

On the program:

Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 645 - Craig F. Humber, organ (Silbermann organ at St. Peter's Church, Freiburg, Germany)

Partita No. 3 in E for Solo Violin, BWV 1006 - Isabelle Faust, violin

Cantata BWV 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (translation) - Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; Petra Noskaiová, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken, conductor



Brian McCreath (BM): There’s only one player, but within the music there are two, and sometimes three voices…


BM: It’s not that J.S. Bach was the first to try injecting multiple voices into a solo violin piece.  But his 6 works for that one instrument took the idea to new and still unmatched heights…


BM: Isabelle Faust performs the Third Partita for solo violin, coming up on The Bach Hour.


BM: Hello, I’m Brian McCreath;  welcome to The Bach Hour from Classical Radio Boston WCRB, a part of WGBH.  Isabelle Faust’s recording of Bach’s Partita No. 3 was described by one reviewer as “solid and assured - but also brilliantly quicksilver,”  in an interpretation that’s “one of the most personal and most inventive after that of the legendary Nathan Milstein.”  That performance is coming up, as is the Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, or “Adorn yourself, O dear soul.”  You’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this program again on demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Bach’s music has been a beacon for other composers since its inception, and it was Robert Schumann who found a particular chorale prelude to be “as priceless, deep, and full of soul as any piece springing from a true artist’s imagination.” 

Here is that prelude, based upon the same 17th century chorale that underpins the Cantata 180 you’ll hear later on. Craig Humber performs Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele at St. Peter’s Church in Freiberg, Germany, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: This very calming organ prelude by J.S. Bach is built upon the chorale, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, or “Adorn yourself, O dear soul.”  Canadian organist Craig Humber performed on an instrument in Freiberg, Germany that was built by Gottfried Silbermann, an almost exact contemporary and - as it turns out - friend of Johann Sebastian Bach.

And that musical DNA will return later in the Cantata 180, based on the same chorale.

In his biography entitled “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” John Eliot Gardiner unpacks part of what makes the composer’s six works for solo violin so incredible.  He writes that, “The deliberately restrictive medium teems with interpretative matter implied by, but containable within, the notation. … the music is festooned with little time-bombs of harmonic potential that tease us to speculate on how they might turn out. … both player and listener are required to complete the creative act.”

Here is Isabelle Faust with one of those works, the Partita No. 3, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: Johann Sebastian Bach wasn’t only one of the best-known organists and organ technicians of his day, he was also a pretty terrific violinist by all accounts.  And that expertise gave him the tools and insight to compose a series of six works for solo violin.  They call on every bit of the instrument’s capability to create multiple voices and harmonies and remain one of the supreme challenges for any violinist.  But when those challenges are met, they’re also among the most rewarding works to hear.  This performance of Bach’s joyful and invigorating Partita No. 3 was given by Isabelle Faust.

Coming up, the story of a wedding gone wrong provides the launching pad for a gorgeous cantata. 

We’re online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you’ll find this and past episodes of The Bach Hour on-demand, along with interviews, videos, and links to further your own Bach explorations.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

The connections among theology, music, and human experience are what motivated Bach in writing his sacred cantatas, and one way he occasionally achieved those connections can be found in what are called chorale cantatas. 

For these pieces, which were performed during Sunday church services, Bach would start with a hymn that the congregation already knew, and then create movements on each verse of that hymn.  The congregation would hear words and themes they were familiar with, and Bach’s music, based on the hymn tune, or chorale, would give the congregation new ways to hear those ideas. 

The Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, or “Adorn yourself, O dear soul,” is one of those chorale cantatas.  The words are sung from the perspective of a believer in a state of darkness, but who’s been invited by God into the light. 

That invitation is a reference to a Gospel passage in which Jesus tells a parable about a king preparing a wedding feast.  He invites all kinds of people to come, but only a few actually do.  Bach leaves behind the rest of the story to focus on the act of union through love, and a believer’s desire for that union with the divine.  Musically, he sets the scene with a loping, graceful rhythm that gives the feeling of dancing from one place to another, maybe like a processional, before the ensemble sings the words, “Adorn yourself, O dear soul, leave the dark pit of sin, come into the bright light.”


BM: A tenor soloist follows with a mood of excitement and anticipation with the words, “Arouse yourself:  your Saviour knocks ... quickly open the gates of your heart,” accompanied by a brilliant flute solo.

The soprano soloist responds, saying that she, as a believer, has been hungering and longing for a union with the divine.  And the alto soloist expresses that odd, all too human combination of fear and joy in the face of what we wish for. 

But the soprano returns to sing, “Sun of life, light of the senses, Lord, You will behold my loyalty and will not scorn my faith, which is still weak and fearful.”  And just as those words imply, the music is bright, and sunny, and cheerful, and if we keep in mind that underlying story about a wedding, you might even hear this aria as a sort of marriage vow on the part of the believer.


BM: The final chorale might be something like an invitation to a wedding feast, as the chorus sings, “Jesus, true bread of life, help, so that I might be invited to Your table [and] be a guest in heaven.”

Remember, you’ll find a translation of the text for this piece from Emmanuel Music when you visit our website, Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is the Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, with soprano Sophie Karthäuser, alto Petra Noskaiová, tenor Christoph Genz, and bass Dominik Wörner.  Those four soloists also make up the choir, and they’re joined by La Petite Bande and director Sigiswald Kuijken, here on The Bach Hour.


BM: Sigiswald Kuijken directed Bach’s Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, in performance with just one singer for each part of the chorus, an approach that Kuijken is convinced is the way Bach’s cantatas were originally performed.  And while that approach remains open to discussion and debate, the effect of such a small vocal ensemble is one of intimacy and gentleness, qualities that serve the Cantata 180 and its themes of invitation and union particularly well.

Remember, if you’d like to hear this program on demand, 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.