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Festival 2020, Concert #1: Air on the G String

This is a poignant moment. 


Tonight, May 29th, would have seen the opening of the fifth anniversary of the Toronto Bach Festival. Although it makes me sad that we are not performing for you, I’m happy to report that all of the artists and staff of the festival are healthy and safe, and I sincerely hope all of you reading this are well. 

The Toronto Bach Festival celebrates the beauty and magic of live performance, with all of the sharing of art and community that our concerts bring to our audience. We can be grateful, however, for the modern phenomena of recordings and the internet that will allow us to virtually share some of Bach’s uplifting music.  

I want to especially thank our steadfast donors, and all of you that donated your purchased tickets to the festival in recent months. Thanks to your outstanding support, I am confident that the Toronto Bach Festival will weather this storm and emerge ready to bring outstanding performances of this matchless music to you once again.

This will be the first of several blog posts presenting the concerts of the 2020 festival to you with suggested recordings of the music we would have been performing, together with some comments from me about the programmes and the music. Today I’ll take you through the music in the opening concert, and over the course of the next few weeks we’ll send you similar postings about the rest of the festival.

The fifth anniversary festival was planned to celebrate two of Bach’s most iconic works: the Mass in B minor, and the complete set of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. I was especially excited to present the Mass directed by the outstanding British Bach scholar and conductor (and my old friend from his salad days in California) John Butt. And what better way to celebrate our fifth anniversary than with a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Sonatas and Partitas, the manuscript copy of which is dated 1720 in Bach’s hand. But mindful, as we are, of the riches of Bach’s creation, we did not want to omit from our celebration the performance of some cantatas, as well as the great instrumental music for which Bach is so justly famous. Thus our opening concert was devised to do just that, with the presentation of two cantatas, one a seldom performed early version of a well-known later work, and one an outstanding example of Bach’s mature cantata composition. Similarly, for the instrumental music my idea was to combine the famous “Air for the G String” found in the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (to be performed, in this case, in its original version) together with one of my own reconstructions of an oboe concerto.

Taking a step back, one could say that a unifying theme of the 2020 festival is one of revision and adaptability. Bach was always working to perfect his art, and nearly all of the works on the festival this year illustrate this fascinating process in one way or another. Most of the works on the opening concert are early versions of works know also in later iterations. The Sonatas and Partitas were composed over a period of years, carefully revised, and finally gathered together in the manuscript copy mentioned above, copied out and dated 1720. And the great Mass in B minor is perhaps the ultimate example of this process, representing adaptations of works from throughout Bach’s career as a composer, together with some of his last and most amazing vocal compositions.

Assembling this blog post has really demonstrated to me (as if I needed any proof!) that what the Toronto Bach Festival is offering to audiences is unique. As many of you know, the Toronto Bach Festival is dedicated to bringing you performances of Bach’s music that represent the most recent research into our understanding of contemporary performance practices. Many scholars now believe that Bach’s music for choral ensemble was intended to be performed by one voice on each part, or, in certain situations two voices per part. But I was not able to find any recordings of the vocal works with one-to-a-part choral performance of Cantata 80a, which is the early Weimar version of the famous Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott was limited to exactly one! We are proud to offer our patrons cutting edge programming and performances of these great works, both in terms of the performing forces, and in terms of exploring interesting versions of famous works. I hope you find this overview of the opening concert of the fifth anniversary festival, Air on the G String,  enlightening and enjoyable, and I look forward to conducting you through the rest of the festival in the coming weeks.


CONCERT #1 - AIR ON THE G STRING

Our concert would have opened with Cantata 80a, Alles was von Gott geboren, which, as I mentioned above, is the Weimar (or early) version of the work that became Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80  some 20 years later. Salomo Franck published the original text for performance in the Weimar court chapel in 1715, and it is believed to have been performed either in March 1715 or March 1716.


Here is the complete text in Pamela Dellal’s excellent translation.


1.  Aria and Chorale  

Alles, was von Gott geboren, Everything that is born of God ist zum Siegen auserkoren. is destined for victory. Wer bei Christi Blutpanier Whoever, with the bloody banner of Christ in der Taufe Treu geschworen, is in baptism truly sworn, siegt im Geiste für und für. conquers in the spirit again and again. Alles, was von Gott geboren, Everything that is born of God ist zum Siegen auserkoren. is destined for victory.

2.  Recitative  

Erwäge doch, Consider then, Kind Gottes, die so große Liebe, children of God, the great love, da Jesus sich that Jesus himself mit seinem Blute dir verschriebe, with His blood signed over to you, womit er dich through which He, zum Kriege wider Satans Heer in the war against Satan’s host und wider Welt und Sünde and against the world and sin geworben hat! has won you! Gib nicht in deiner Seele Do not make a place in your soul dem Satan und den Lastern statt! for Satan and depravity! Laß nicht dein Herz, Do not let your heart, den Himmel Gottes auf der Erden, God’s heaven on earth, zur Wüste werden! become a wasteland! Bereue deine Schuld mit Schmerz, Repent your guilt with pain, daß Christi Geist mit dir sich fest verbinde! so that Christ’s spirit may firmly bind itself to

you!

3.  Aria  

Komm in mein Herzenshaus, Come into my heart’s house

Herr Jesu, mein Verlangen! Lord Jesus, my desire! Treib Welt und Satan aus Drive the world and Satan out

und laß dein Bild im mir erneuert prangen! and let your image shine forth

renewed in me Weg, schnöder Sündengraus! Away, contemptible horror of sin!

4.  Recitative  

So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbten Fahne, Then stand with Christ’s bloodstained

banner O Seele, fest! O soul, firmly! Und glaube, daß dein Haupt dich nicht verläßt, And believe, that you will not lose your

Leader Ja, daß sein Seig indeed, that His victory auch dir den Weg zu deiner Krone bahne! will also pave the way to your crown! Tritt freudig an den Krieg! March joyfully to the war! Wirst du nur Gottes Wort If you only keep God’s word  so hören als bewahren, as you hear it, so wird der Feind gezwungen auszufahren, then the enemy will be driven out forcibly, dein Heiland bleibt dein Heil, your Saviour remains your salvation, dein Heiland bleibt dein Hort! your Saviour remains your refuge!

5. Duetto  

Wie selig ist der Leib, der Jesu How blessed are they, they that bore dich getragen, you, Jesus Doch selger ist das Herz, das ihn im Still more blessed is the heart Glaüben trägt! that bears You in faith! Es bleibet unbesiegt und kann It remains unvanquished

die Feinde schlagen and can strike the enemy Und wird zuletz gekrönt, wenn es den Tod erlegt. And will at last be crowned, when it

captures death

6.  Chorale  

Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan, With our strength nothing can be done, wir sind gar bald verloren. we are very soon lost. Es streit’ vor uns der rechte Mann, The righteous Man battles for us, den Gott selbst hat erkoren. that God himself has elected. Fragst du, wer er ist? You ask, who is He? Er heist Jesus Christ, He is called Jesus Christ, der Herre Zebaoth, the Lord of Sabaoth, und ist kein andrer Gott and there is no other God; das Feld muß er behalten. He must hold the field.


I was only able to find one publicly-available recording of this work to offer you in this blog. Although it uses a full choir (rather than one voice to a part, as we would have performed it) it’s quite a nice performance, and has some interesting features, among which is the use of the bassoon rather than the more traditional cello in the beautiful continuo aria with soprano.  The final duet is a piece that has always stood out to me even among many amazing vocal pieces by Bach as one of his most beautiful. In this aria I love the way Bach brings the music lower and lower and softer as he depicts the text “and will at last be crowned when it captures death,” and then deftly and beautifully transitions back to the beginning, as if the sun’s rays shine on us again.

The orchestration in the reconstruction of the cantata is uncertain; here they have opted for violin and viola. For TBF 2020 we were planning to use violin and oboe da caccia, as Bach used in the later version of the cantata.


The second work on the opening programme was to have been the ever popular Orchestral Suite No. 3, with its famous movement Air on the G string. Despite its rather hoary history as a violin recital piece from the 19th century (arranged and transposed), the movement remains a beautiful aria (Air) in Bach’s original. Our performance would have featured the purported original, based on research by the eminent musicologist Joshua Rifkin. This version omits the trumpets and timpani familiar to many of us, and brings us another beautiful orchestral work for string ensemble with oboes.

Here’s an excellent performance (although, sadly, omitting the oboes) by the Netherlands Bach Society.


Our programme was to continue with one of my own reconstructed oboe concertos, in this case the concerto after BWV 1056.  This work has survived as the concerto for Harpsichord in F minor, BWV 1056. Like many of the harpsichord concertos, however, it’s easy to see that the original work was probably for a violin or an oboe. The slow movement is already known to us as a work for oboe:  the opening sinfonia to the cantata, BWV 156, from 1729. I have researched the surviving sources and made my own version of the complete concerto for the oboe as a part of my Bach Oboe Concerto recording project in 2005.

I’m pleased to present you with access to that recording, made available for the first time on YouTube.

The final work on our programme was to have been the cantata BWV 70, Wachet! Betet! Although this work also had its origin in Weimar, our performance was planned to be the revision of the work that Bach performed in Leipzig in November 1723. The text of the earlier cantata is once again by the Weimar court poet Salomo Franck. Bach expanded this composition in Leipzig by adding two recitatives and a chorale. We do not know who wrote the text of the two new recitatives. Did Bach write them himself? It’s possible, but we really don’t know.

Here is the text:

Erster Teil Part One 1. Chor Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! Watch! pray! pray! watch! Seid bereit Be ready Allezeit, all the time, Bis der Herr der Herrlichkeit until the Lord of glory Dieser Welt ein Ende machet. brings this world to an end.


2. Rezitativ B Erschrecket, ihr verstockten Sünder! Be afraid, callous sinners! Ein Tag bricht an, A day dawns, Vor dem sich niemand bergen kann: from which no one can hide: Er eilt mit dir zum strengen Rechte, it rushes upon you with stern judgment, O! sündliches Geschlechte, O! sinful race, Zum ewgen Herzeleide. to your eternal sorrow. Doch euch, erwählte Gotteskinder, Yet for you, chosen children of God, Ist er ein Anfang wahrer Freude. it is the beginning of true joy. Der Heiland holet euch, wenn alles The Savior gathers you, when fällt und bricht, everything falls and breaks Vor sein erhöhtes Angesicht; before His exalted countenance; Drum zaget nicht! therefore do not despair!


3. Arie A Wenn kömmt der Tag, an dem wir ziehen When will the day come, on which we shall

depart Aus dem Ägypten dieser Welt? out of the Egypt of this world? Ach! laßt uns bald aus Sodom fliehen, Ah! Let us soon flee out of Sodom, Eh uns das Feuer überfällt! before the fire falls on us! Wacht, Seelen, auf von Sicherheit Watch, souls, get up from your complacency Und glaubt, es ist die letzte Zeit! and believe, it is the end of time!


4. Rezitativ T Auch bei dem himmlischen Verlangen Even in heavenly longing Hält unser Leib den Geist gefangen; our bodies hold our spirits prisoner; Es legt die Welt durch ihre Tücke the world through its deceit Den Frommen Netz und Stricke. lays traps and snares for the righteous. Der Geist ist willig, doch das The spirit is willing, Fleisch ist schwach; yet the flesh is weak; Dies preßt uns aus ein jammervolles Ach! this wrenches from us a sorrowful Alas!


5. Arie S Laßt der Spötter Zungen schmähen, Let the tongues of the mockers scorn, Es wird doch und muß geschehen, yet it will and must occur, Daß wir Jesum werden sehen that we shall behold Jesus Auf den Wolken, in den Höhen. upon the clouds, in the heights. Welt und Himmel mag vergehen, World and heaven may pass away, Christi Wort muß fest bestehen. Christ's word must remain firm. Laßt der Spötter Zungen schmähen; Let the tongues of the mockers scorn; Es wird doch und muß geschehen! yet it will and must occur!


6. Rezitativ T Jedoch bei dem unartigen Geschlechte However among the uncouth masses Denkt Gott an seine Knechte, God considers His servants, Daß diese böse Art so that this evil way Sie ferner nicht verletzet, will no longer injure them, Indem er sie in seiner Hand bewahrt as long as He keeps them in His hands Und in ein himmlisch Eden setzet. and places them in a heavenly Eden.


7. Choral Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele, Rejoice greatly, o my soul, Und vergiß all Not und Qual, and forget all stress and anguish, Weil dich nun Christus, dein Herre, since now Christ, your Lord, Ruft aus diesem Jammertal! calls you out of this valley of sorrow! Seine Freud und Herrlichkeit His joy and glory Sollt du sehn in Ewigkeit, you shall behold in eternity, Mit den Engeln jubilieren, to celebrate with the angels, In Ewigkeit triumphieren. and triumph in eternity.


Zweiter Teil Part Two 8. Arie T Hebt euer Haupt empor Lift up your heads Und seid getrost, ihr Frommen, and be comforted, o righteous ones, Zu eurer Seelen Flor! even to the bloom of your souls! Ihr sollt in Eden grünen, You shall flourish in Eden, Gott ewiglich zu dienen. serving God eternally.


9. Rezitativ B und instrumental Choral Ach, soll nicht dieser große Tag, Ah, shall not this great day, Der Welt Verfall the collapse of the world Und der Posaunen Schall, and the ring of the trumpet, Der unerhörte letzte Schlag, the unheard-of last stroke, Des Richters ausgesprochne Worte, the Judge's proclaimed words, Des Höllenrachens offne Pforte the open gates of Hell's wrath, In meinem Sinn awaken in my mind Viel Zweifel, Furcht und Schrecken, much doubt, fear, and terror, Der ich ein Kind der Sünden bin, since I am a child of sin? Erwecken? Jedoch, es gehet meiner Seelen However, to my soul comes Ein Freudenschein, a ray of happiness, ein Licht des Trostes auf. a light of comfort. Der Heiland kann sein Herze nicht verhehlen, The Savior cannot conceal His heart So vor Erbarmen bricht, which breaks with mercy, Sein Gnadenarm verläßt mich nicht. His gracious arm will not abandon me. Wohlan, so ende ich mit Freuden meinen Lauf. Therefore I will end my course with joy. (Instrumental Chorale: Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit, Indeed the time is here daß Gottes Sohn wird kommen when God's Son will come [in seiner großen Herrlichkeit, [in His great glory zu richten Bös' und Frommen.] to judge the wicked and the righteous.] Dann wird das Lachen werden theur, Then laughter will be rare, Wann Alles soll vergehn im Feu'r, when everything goes up in flames, Wie Petrus davon zeuget.) as Peter bore witness.)

10. Arie B Seligster Erquickungstag, Blessed day of revival, Führe mich zu deinen Zimmern! lead me to your halls! Schalle, knalle, letzter Schlag, Resound, peal, last stroke, Welt und Himmel, geht zu Trümmern! world and heaven, fall in ruins! Jesus führet mich zur Stille, Jesus leads me to quiet, An den Ort, da Lust die Fülle. to the place where pleasure is complete.


11. Choral Nicht nach Welt, nach Himmel nicht Not for the world, nor for heaven Meine Seele wünscht und sehnet, does my soul long and yearn, Jesum wünsch ich und sein Licht, I desire Jesus and His light, Der mich hat mit Gott versöhnet, Who has with God forgiven me, Der mich freiet vom Gericht, Who frees me from judgment, Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht. I will not abandon my Jesus.

This cantata features some of Bach’s most dramatic writing. Notice how in the opening movement he depicts first “watch, be on guard” with the fanfare figuration of the trumpet, then “waiting with anticipation” with the extended sequence of gradually shifting harmonies. And all this before the voices enter. The two added recitatives are amazing accompanied recitatives for bass and strings, “Be afraid, callous sinners,” and “Ah, shall not this great day,” this last followed by the amazing aria “Blessed day of revival.” And I find the remarkable characterization by the instrumental line of the text “Let the tongues of the mockers scorn” in the soprano aria quite remarkable. Add to these, two other beautiful arias and two wonderful chorales and this is altogether an outstanding cantata.

Again, I was not able to find a publicly available recording that did NOT use a full choir. Here is an excellent performance, however, by John Elliot Gardiner.


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