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.


Willym said...

After reading both this posting and the review at the Arts Desk I am, as I am so often when I read you, green with envy but filled with the joy of your words.

David said...

Well, Will, I hope they give you pointers to where you and L can go and stay next spring. Though maybe Italy ought to come first - I've been away from it too long. And perhaps you've still not overcome your problems with Bach, which are akin to mine with (some of) Beethoven. That B minor Mass would have had you floating, I know it. Maybe I should send you a compilation of arias and choruses from the cantatas that make me weep, and/or dance.

Catriona said...

You tantalise ... are you going to write about Baden-Baden too?

David said...

Yep, Catriona - rather more peculiar, but still much as Dostoyevsky found it (those louche Russians). I owe a Rosenkavalier summary, Fassbaender's production in the horridly oversized Festspielhaus.

As for Thuringia, you realise, I hope, that you have to go next year. Still undecided about Goettingen.

wanderer said...

What an Easter! in contrast to our unholy one down here. And a wonderful (memorable) shot of Dresden.

Unsurprisingly I suppose, it's Tannhäusser that I immediately link with Eisenach, to which we got no closer than a towery glipmse from the autobahn, and not least worth mentioning because Birgit opened the Sydney Opera House with "Dich, teure Halle".

That Thuringia is relatively off the tourist trail is astounding (access perhaps) but a blessing - we wandered the lovely Weimar all but alone.

Have you indulged the biannual JSB festival in Leipzig?

Speaking of beguiling speculation, I see the Steve Isserlis debunked film regarding Mrs Bach and who wrote what has just won a Gold Medal.

David said...

Yes, wanderer, that Dresden shot was taken the year after we all went there, in weather no less extraordinary (and even hotter).

I've written a bit about the Wartburg in the Arts Desk piece but should eventually put up a kitschy shot or two of the 'teure Halle'. Seeing the grubby little Luther room was quite something, too.

That Birgit version from the opening is dreadfully out of tune, but then she goes on to give the best of all her Immolations that I know of. Charlie's Meistersinger Prelude is filled with a sense of excitement and occasion. There's no faking it in that piece.

Didn't give the Anna Magdalena 'doc' houseroom - unbeguiling speculation - but will read what Steven has to say: always a fresh and lively thinker, had a fascinating time with him over coffee talking Prokofiev recently.

Susan Scheid said...

I second Willym. I can only imagine (with your help through this post and the TAD article) how glorious it had to be to hear Bach in the settings you describe. Not to mention hearing Jeremy Denk perform the Goldberg Variations live, in Weimar, no less, while here I am, close to his home perch and have yet to hear him either at Bard or in NYC! I have for a while, however, had a Thuringia of my imagination, but it had nothing to do with Bach. I was researching for a novella I was writing and in the process learned more than anyone could ever want to know about prosthetic eyes. It was actually quite fascinating. In the 19th C, Thuringian glass-blowers developed creolite glass. Consequently, Thuringia became the center for making glass prosthetic eyes and supplier of creolite glass to the US. When the onset of WWII cut off the US’s supply, the dentistry profession (if I recall correctly) came to the rescue and developed a plastic suitable for prosthetic eyes. Now most, if not all, prosthetic eyes are plastic. (In the even more still than you want to know category, the novella was chosen as a finalist for a big novella prize . . . the only hitch was the revisions the selection committee wanted would have meant writing a completely different novella.) I’ve been “eyeing” that Gardiner book—it’s been on my wish list since it came out—but I’ve been fearful that too much of it would be way over my head. I must take a look next time I’m in a bookstore.

David said...

You are a constant source of amazement, Susan Scheid. I'm tempted to say W-eye-mar but I read that the glass-blowing was somewhere else in Thuringia. But I didn't know about the eyes (only connect with Hoffmann and Coppelius's case of artificial oculars).

You would, I know, be able to manage far more than you think, but let me assure you that JEG's book is for all intelligent readers, first and foremost because it will make you want to hear and love what he does, and secondly because he's as good at writing comprehensibly about music as Brian Magee is about philosophy (and he brings in lots of references from the literary world). The details about the Passions and Cantatas are best savoured with the music to hand, but the historical side, speculation and all, is also fascinating.

Like I wrote, a lifetime isn't long enough to hear, let alone get to know, all Bach. I like the comment a consultant made on putting the complete works of Bach into the Voyager spacecraft, for intelligent life if such there be to discover the best of us: 'But that would be boasting'.

David Damant said...

I first visited Dresden in (I think) 1968 when it had clearly been vollige ausgebombted. But I felt it was a sign of something - maybe the German character, maybe just human good sense - that the one building which had been put together ( hardly restored as it was still black with the smoke of war) was the picture gallery, the Zwinger

David said...

My understanding was that the Zwinger Palace had largely escaped the bombs. When I first went, the putti were all lying down or in restoration. But the black is what happens to that type of stone, apparently - it's neither pollution nor 'the smoke of war'.

David Damant said...

I had forgotten your point about the stone going black. But most commentators write that the Zwinger building was largely destroyed, and that they started restoration in 1945. Difficult sometimes to get at the truth with so much both right and wrong being repeated and repeated

In his essay on The Sublime and the Beautiful Burke writes that London would be so much more impressive if in ruins. I understood his point when I visited the ruins of Dresden and even more so of Berlin - the Unter den Linden was silent except for the calls of the birds. I felt a bit like Gibbon when he sat in the ruins of the Roman Forum, though the moment did not inspire me to write the Decline and Fall of the Prussian Empire

David said...

Unter den Linden is just horrible now, completely sterile. The Dresden reconstruction is incredibly impressive, though it was chastening to stand in the big square and be told that the oldest original building in it was the 1970s concert hall...which I'm glad they're keeping. The Soviet-style murals had gone when I last visited, but I was reassured that they were in restoration.

Of course shells were left of some buildings - not the Frauenkirche, but the Royal Palace still had its outlines on my first visit in the early 1990s. The Semperopera had just been restored then - we were pelted with foam fruits in Joachim Herz's production of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges.

Xanaseb said...

Thank-you for a good read! This must have been a once in a life-time experience. I am envious! Collegium 1704 have livened up Bach's Mass in B minor in a positive way, though I am afraid I have still not taken too the piece itself to the same level of esteem that is widely given it.
It was nice to hear some comments on Zelenka. The Requiem and Officium Defunctorum are great and intense works, but they were only written (if I recall correctly!) in a space of less than a week. To give Zelenka a more credit, have you perhaps listened to the superb 'Missa Omnium Sanctorum', exhibiting his radical late style (and what *I* would class as the greatest Mass of all time!)? I am keenly looking forward to Collegium 1704's upcoming production of Zelenka's Missa Divi Xaverii from 1729, which is a carefully crafted and colourful work from his most active composing period.

David said...

You make me want to listen to Zelenka's 'Missa omnium sanctorum', Xanaseb, though if it's a patch on the B minor I'd be amazed. Maybe more surprising in its invention, but it always intrigues me that works which are groundbreaking aren't necessarily the greatest (though Bach did break new ground time and again). 'Good for the history of music but not for music' is the dismissive phrase of one of Prokofiev's teachers which has always stuck with me.

Anyway, a thousand thanks to Collegium 1704 for making these works live so vividly.

John Graham, Edinburgh said...

I have greatly enjoyed Wilhelm Fried Bach's sonatas for flute duet, also recorded on the high-quality German label Accenr, who also have your Zelenka. Did you ever see Mad Men? Some have thought it style over substance, but I enjoyed the series of period pieces depicting the enormous changes in male-female relations during the sixties, leading to the increasing redundancy and superluity of male attitudes and employment practices.John Graham, Edinburgh

David said...

Terrible truism, but life isn't long enough to hear all of JSB. Though there have been raves recently for a new disc of CPE symphonies.

As for Mad Men, I suppose I must have watched several series and then rather lost interest, as I did in later instalments of Breaking Bad. These American series can be over-extended (and unsurprisingly: if you can make a lot of money, keep at it!) Looking forward to the next series of Orange is the New Black, though, a series of endless resourcefulness...so far.

I admit to a soft spot for the women in Man Men (Elizabeth Moss is such a good actress, 'Joan' fascinates me, I must admit partly because of the 'big bust is beautiful' notion). The men are just tiresome, however good-looking. I suppose that's part of the point.

Ruth sends greetings. She's here at the moment, warming herself in fabulous sunshine, and we may go to see the Ravilious exhibition in Dulwich tomorrow.