Tuesday, 14 April 2015
Bach's Dresden jaunt
That noblest of riverside views* was snapped in a heatwave last summer; in fact I've been in the contrasting strongholds of Baden-Baden and Thuringia, and nothing could have been closer to heaven than the greatest of B minor Masses on Easter Sunday in the Bethlehem of Bach-lovers, Eisenach. Bach was baptised there on 23 March 1685 in the very font (pictured below after the concert) we saw flanked by players of Prague's superlative Collegium/Collegium Vocale 1704. I've written something about this and other wonders of Bachland over on The Arts Desk.
Then, if ever, was the time to take with me John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven and read it from cover to cover (which I now nearly have, excepting the lengthy descriptions of the two major Passions, which I'll save for when I next listen to them properly). Even in a volume full of JEG's extraordinary blend of passionate enthusiasm and intellectual rigour - with plenty of speculation, given the gaps in the JSB biography, all of which strikes me as entirely plausible - the chapter on the B minor Mass is overwhelmingly impressive. Extreme care in devotion is needed when dealing with the greatest mass ever (yes, I know, there's Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, but sorry, that's a bit of a blind spot for me, and a lung-busting horror to sing, though I can see the genius) and Gardiner is as good on the history as he is on the music in detail.
It's fascinating, for instance, to read of what may have happened when Bach went to Dresden in 1733 to see his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, settled in as organist of the Sophienkirche. Clearly the Kyrie and Gloria - the only two mass sequences admitted in Lutheran practice - featured, like nearly everything else in what was to become his complete mass masterpiece, 'parodies' of earlier inspirations, but seen to have been specially tailored for the sumptuous Court Orchestra and its Italian operatic soloists. The rest, as we now know, wasn't entirely ready until two years before his death, but it's exciting to know about the music's intermediate putting-down of roots.
That turned me back to the two other Collegium 1704 recordings which a Czech benefactor sent me a couple of years ago featuring church music by Jan Dismas Zelenka, then the main man in Dresden and Bach's good friend. Of course anything is going to seem one-dimensional after the four of Bach, but I was charmed by the Requiem in D Zelenka composed for the year-long obsequies, also starting in 1733, in honour of that mostly ridiculous ruler and fortune squanderer Augustus the Strong. Charmed? Yes, because it's not the usual heavy-hearted affair. How odd to hear a Kyrie begin in bold major with drums and trumpets - the emphasis being on the 'lux per perpetua', presumably - and a Dies Irae that starts in incredibly jolly fashion.
Nothing outstays its welcome here, and though the writing for solo or paired instruments is penny-plain alongside Bach's, it's good to hear the chalumeau and to savour the bassoons chuntering downwards at the bass's Offertorium lines about Tartarus (Gardiner tells us how delighted Bach must have been by the Dresden bassoonists; apparently the Leipzig fagottist was feeble).
The Officio defunctorum, also for not-so-strong Augustus, on the other disc is more long winded but also stranger in parts; ditto the Responsoria pro hebdomadad sancta of 1723 in a second Collegium set, with some astounding chromatics and firework word-setting.
Above all, of course, I've been back to Collegium 1704's B minor Mass, which reveals how much that vital conductor Václav Luks has changed since the recording was made. I'd love to know what the players felt about the very special circumstances of the Eisenach performance.
I'll certainly never forget it - the crowning glory of an Easter Sunday which began in style with a Cranach masterpiece as focal point, and a more modest Bach mass to punctuate, in Weimar's Herderkirche. This shot, I hasten to add, taken long before the service began, with the church packed when we arrived.
*One that Bach very nearly lived to see. At the end of Gardiner's Chapter 13 there's another beguiling speculation - that he was readying the B minor Mass for the inauguration of the Catholic Hofkirche (the church on the right), finally completed the year after his death. The famous Frauenkirche (the dome to the left), a people's venture, which rose only to fall in World War II and rise again, improbably, in recent years - I saw both the ruins and the completion - must have been appearing on the skyline too.