Richard Egarr on Bach's Orchestral Suites
On the program:
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068: II. Air - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, conductor
Cantata BWV 54 Widerstehe doch der Sünde (translation) - Elisabeth Wilke, mezzo-soprano; Virtuosi Saxonae, Ludwig Güttler, director
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, BWV 1069 - Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, conductor
Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54 - Vikingur Olafssaon, piano
Brian McCreath (BMcC) Bach’s Orchestral Suites are at once some of the most popular works the composer wrote – and some of the most mysterious. But according to conductor Richard Egarr, we can put together some clues that help to unlock those mysteries.
Richard Egarr (RE) And there are all sorts of theories about early versions of these suites and whether they were done without trumpets, with trumpets. But for instance, the fourth suite, we also have the Cantata 110, which is all about our mouths are full of laughter. It's all sort of belly laughs and having a good time, jolly time, in D Major.
BMcC Conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr joins us for a look at music that invites us into the genius of Bach through the addictive rhythms of dance, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I’m Brian McCreath. Welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. Richard Egarr has visited Boston many times, leading the Handel and Haydn Society in concerts that have been described by critics as “reinvigorating,” with “expressive intensity and dramatic power.” And you’ll hear from Richard Egarr later on in the program. And you’ll also hear Bach’s Cantata No. 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, or “Just resist sin.” As always, you’ll find a translation of that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. That’s also where you can hear this and past programs on-demand. Again, that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
For now, here is the Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, performed by London’s Academy of Ancient Music, led by Richard Egarr, here on The Bach Hour.
That’s the Air, from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3, in a recording by the Academy of Ancient Music, led by Richard Egarr. And you’ll hear more from that recording, along with the thoughts of Richard Egarr about this music, coming up later in the program.
Bach’s Cantata No. 54 is in some ways, one of his most spare. It’s written for only a single voice, and it includes only three movements. But message of Widerstehe doch der Sünde, or “Just resist sin,” is powerful, and that economy of writing makes that message feel incredibly direct, maybe even blunt.
The piece starts with an unsettled dissonance, but as layers of sound build up, it begins to feel, maybe, luxurious, with a texture the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music compared to velvet. And it leads to the entry that solo voice, singing the words, “Just resist sin, lest its poison seize you.”
Bach is playing with our perceptions, sending an explicit message of resistance through the text while simultaneously creating the seductiveness of sin through the music itself. It perfectly embodies the tension between a believer’s conscience and what that believer is tempted by.
A recitative lays things out in more detail, the text translating as, “the appearance of vile sin
is indeed outwardly very beautiful; On the outside it is gold; yet, going further in, it shows itself as only an empty shadow and a whitewashed grave.”
The final movement brings some resolution, but not a relaxed, joyful celebration, as you might hear in some of Bach’s other works. Rather, laid out as a fugue, it’s a reminder that the believer has constant work to do, the soloist singing, “if one is able, with virtuous devotion, to withstand [sin’s] contemptible bonds, it is already done away with.”
You can find a complete translation of the text for this piece at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, or “Just resist sin,” with mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Wilke and Virtuosi Saxonae, led by Ludwig Güttler, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 54]
The Cantata No. 54 by Bach, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, or “Just resist sin,” in a performance by mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Wilke and Virtuosi Saxonae, led by Ludwig Güttler.
Coming up, harpsichordist and conductor Richard Egarr joins us for one of Bach’s vibrant Orchestral Suites.
You’re listening to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, Classical Radio Boston.
Welcome back to The Bach Hour, from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. I’m Brian McCreath.
Conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr has visited Boston many times, usually as a guest conductor for the Handel and Haydn Society. And during one of those visits, I had a chance to talk with him about Bach’s music. In his role as Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music in London Egarr had just recorded the composer’s four surviving orchestral suites. For that project, he created brand new editions of the music, a process he says was necessary for a couple of reasons:
Richard Egarr (RE) We have surviving material, so we sort of know, doctor the material to what we've got available to us. But, yeah, they're interesting pieces and the editions that are out at the moment aren't infallible. Let's put it that way.
Brian McCreath (BMcC) Well, tell me about the process of doing that. I mean, it's kind of fascinating that you go back to the source material.
RE Yeah, I mean, for instance, for the first suite, there's just one set of parts which survives in mostly Bach's hand. And it's kind of curious because the bass line only survives for harpsichord and bassoon.
So does that mean he only used a harpsichord and bassoon on the bass? I doubt it. But now that's all that survives. So you have to make decisions based on what we've got available. And there are all sorts of theories about early versions of these suites and whether they were done without trumpets, with trumpets. I mean, my great colleague Andrew Manze came and did it all here with the Orchestral Suites, with a string quartet, theorbo and harpsichord. There are all sorts of putative ideas about early, early versions, which are interesting, but there's very little hard core evidence. But for instance, the fourth suite, that almost certainly there was some kind of early version that we don't know exactly what it was. But the thing is, it comes down to us in manuscripts with the trumpets, and there's also for the full suite, we also have the Cantata 110 where the first movement survives as part of the cantata, which is fascinating actually, because it also helps with matters of tempo for that particular suite. Because if you look at what the what the voices are having to sing, it cannot be the sort of rampantly, rabid fast tempos that some groups have taken this piece at because you just you can't sing it. You can't get the text out. But it also also has a clue to the sort of character of the piece as well, because that that cantata first chorus is all about our mouths are full of laughter. It's all sort of belly laughs and having a good time, jolly time, in D Major, so it's --
BMcC That Cantata was for a Christmas.
RE Yeah. Yeah. It's, it's a wonderful piece and it just gives you a clue to, say, the character of the opening movement of the full suite.
BMcC I also asked Richard Egarr about one specific aspect of the Academy's approach to performing this music.
BMcC You decided to record these with one player on a part rather than sort of an orchestral section. And what's behind that? Because, you know, the first thing comes up his balance with the trumpets. But but there's more to it than that, I expect.
RE The thing is that a modern concept of a trumpet player is a noisemaker. And that just wasn't the case in the baroque period. And the trumpet players could play really quietly. We are very blessed to have a great team of trumpet players led by David Blackadder. And I remember when we did the Brandenburgs, we also did that single players and we were giving concerts with Brandenburgs. And I remember we did a concert in Bath in England in the I think it was the assembly rooms in Bath, which is a wonderful sort of early 19th century building. And I kid you not. The recorder was the loudest instrument on the stage, you know, because because Dave can play so beautifully quietly and it's not, the trumpet isn't, this time, isn't about blasting full force all the time. It's it's about delicate because, you know, it's so treacherous up there and it's all about control and having the ability to control the sound. So in fact, when you've got good trumpet players, again for the full suite, you have a naturally equal balance. If you think about it, you have three groups of of instruments. You've got the strings, the reeds and the brass, all of which have three high instruments. You've got three high trumpets, three oboes and the three high strings, the two violins, viola supported by their respective basses. So there is a natural three three three. So it's, there is a natural balance if you've got the good players to make it work because it will work.
BMcC And here is the Academy of Ancient Music and director Richard Egarr in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 1069]
That’s the Orchestral Suite No. 4 by Bach, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music and their Music Director, Richard Egarr.
Earlier in the hour you heard the Cantata No. 54, a meditation on the tension between temptation and conscience. And here is the first part of that cantata, in a transcription and performance by pianist Vikingur Olafsson.
[MUSIC – BWV 54-1]
Widerstehe doch der Sünde, or “Just resist sin,” the first part of the Cantata 54, in a transcription and performance by Vikingur Olafsson.
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.