The Bach cantata pilgrimage with Rilling and company came to a halt over Lent, for obvious reasons. And since the only Palm Sunday cantata, BWV 182, was among the last I reached in my 2013 attempt to make a whole year of cantatas, Easter weekend marked the pick-up point. First, though, an essential Passion for Good Friday, since this year I didn't get to hear one live (the nearest I came was the unforgettable Lucerne staging of Schumann's Scenes from Faust). I have the Britten set of the St John on LP, unheard until now, with its bold reproduction of Graham Sutherland's Northampton Crucifixion on the cover, and it proved a very moving listening experience.
Having started with another boxed set I picked up recently in a quest to try and take unfashionable large-scale Bach seriously, Karajan's St Matthew Passion, and given up when faced with the sludge and the dim sound - back that goes to another charity shop - Britten's is a whole new world of biting passion and inscaped sadness. It's sung in English, with Peter Pears having worked on the recitatives and Imogen Holst collaborating on the rest; Colin Matthews writes briefly but eloquently on the changes in an essential booklet note. And I've been reading Imogen H on Britten and Byrd recently; what a superb clarifier she was (pictured below with Britten and Pears in the Red House garden).
Pears's burning delivery - the famous setting of Peter's weeping is as searing as any - makes it work. And there's plenty of thrust in the meaning from the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir - really, no extra voices? - and the superb soloists. John Shirley-Quirk helps realise Britten's special spirituality in the last bass aria with chorale, and Alfreda Hodgson is peerless in both Parts, much abetted by the English Chamber Orchestra oboes in No. 11. A great mezzo, easily the equal of Janet Baker and yet so overlooked by comparison.
Later I turned to another LP box I picked up recently, Britten's 'new concert version' of Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen, in which Hodgson sings Mopsa to Pears's Corydon (no all-male bad camp here, then, but plenty of esprit). Again, the stylishness and engagement leap out over a distance of 45 years, and I like what Britten does with the messy hybrid better than any other version. I've now ordered up his Schumann Faust-Szenen with Fischer-Dieskau as a third LP set to make a handsome trilogy.
Easter Day, Monday and Tuesday brought with them new cantatas to hear, so finally it was back to Rilling. 'Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret,' BWV 31, was composed by the 30-year old Bach for Weimar - the size of it suggests the original venue as not the court chapel but the main parish church known as the Herderkirche where we were lucky to attend an Easter Sunday service back in 2015, looking on the splendid Cranach altarpiece -
and probably reused in Leipzig. Gardiner suggests a parallel between the five-part chorus and the Gloria of the B minor Mass, down to the slowing of tempo and rest for the brass in the middle. It's exactly what one would expect for a 'Christ is risen' Cantata, though the ensuing recits are perhaps more striking in their word-painting than the bravura arias. There's a sublime trumpet descant to the final chorale.
Our Easter Sunday anthem this year, by the way, was Hadley's 'My beloved spake,' which we all used to love in the choir of All Saints Banstead - I realise it also enable me to recite this bit of the Song of Solomon - and which was sung on Sunday by the choir of St Paul's Cathedral. So we went there through the drear and heard the music only from a great distance, among masses of tourists. Still, Hadley's juicy harmonic shifts and two big blazes made their mark. I'm hoping close friends Juliette and Rory will choose it for their wedding this summer.
Most fascinating on the Bach front is the extreme contrast between the Easter Day jubilation and the inwardness of 'Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden,' BWV 6, composed for 1725's Easter Monday in Leipzig. The comparison here in the opening chorus is even more marked, with the bittersweet genius of 'Ruht wohl' at the end of the St John Passion, C minor key and sarabande movement included.
How wonderful the harmonies of the two oboes and oboe da caccia and the power of the chorus in Rilling's superlative performance; likewise the oboe da caccia's solo in counterpoint with mezzo Carolyn Watkinson, a singer I always liked and who appears in the Rilling Bach cantatas for the first time, and the piccolo cello against Edith Wiens (another unexpected name in the set) singing the central chorale. Profound music throughout in a great performance.
Gardiner is a thoughtful commentator again; he compares the contrast between the absence of Christ in a light-diminished world and a holding on to Word and sacrament, a contrast between dark and bright, with Caravaggio's first representation of the Supper at Emmaus, pictured above; it made me look up the second, where Christ has a beard.
Still, although it's less pertinent here (daylight is preferred to the night setting), Titian's representation, often overlooked in the Louvre because it hangs opposite Leonardo's Mona Lisa and currently in the stunning Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy, is the one closest to my heart. Such gorgeous coloured silks, such an amazing composition.
Easter Tuesday's cantata is a little satyr-play by comparison with the Big Ones; it seems that a Telemann opening chorus was added, probably in performances after Bach's death. 'Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergötzen,' BWV 145, putatively reworks secular numbers lost to us. It dances its nine-minute way in a delicious opening duet with solo violin and a tenor aria with trumpet solo. A concert of all three cantatas would be as good a demonstration as any of Bach's phenomenal emotional range.
Dante's encyclopaedic frame of reference, in the meantime, continues to stun. Frail follower that I am, I missed the climactic Warburg class on Purgatorio, in which I'm told Dr Alessandro Scafi read Dante's meeting with Beatrice in the Garden of Eden with special tenderness; I'd only just back from Lucerne last Monday, and the extra half hour I'd promised the Opera in Depth students so that we could see the second and third acts of From the House of the Dead in Chéreau's production ran over; a furious pedal from Paddington to Bloomsbury would still have made me miss at least ten minutes of the class.
Anyway I shall reach the top of Purgatory Mountain under my own steam, and meanwhile I've had time to reflect on what my dual-language Dante edition calls 'the great expositions of doctrine at the centre of the Purgatorio'. That therefore means at the centre of the entire Divina Commedia. They appear in Cantos 15-18, and in our first class on the second instalment of the mighty work, Dr. Scafi and Professor Took chose three key passges from two of these Cantos. I'm going to gloze superficially in order, starting most skimmingly with the sharing of heavenly goods, which Dante adapts from Gregory the Great. Earthly ones, according to Dante's Virgil, cannot be shared without a lessening for each sharer; our democratic societies with their libraries, museums and hospitals, albeit under threat, would deny that, as translator Robert Durling points out.
Nevertheless the sharing in Purgatory which began in Canto 2 with the communal hymn in the boat bearing Dante's beloved composer Casella and others is one of the loveliest things about this second book after the total solipsism of the characters in hell. The language strikes me as especially beautiful in these central Cantos, so I'm going to quote at well with Durling's literal translation to follow.
...per quanti si dice più li 'nostro',
tanto possiede più di ben ciascuno,
e più di caritate arde in quel chiostro.
For the more say 'our' up there, the more good each one possesses, and the more charity burns in that cloister (15, 55-7).
Quello infinito e ineffabil Bene
che la su è, così corre ad amore
com' a lucido corpo raggio vène.
That infinite and ineffable Good which is up there runs to love just as a ray comes to a shining body. (15, 67-9).
E quanta gente più là sù s'intende.
piu v'è da bene amare, e piu si v'ama,
e come specchio l'uno a l'altra rende.
And the more people bend toward each other up there, the more there is to love well and the more love there is, and, like a mirror, each reflects it to the other. (15, 73-5)
Well, we can at least aspire to that down here, can't we? 'We must love one another and die'.
By the way, I'm typing out the Italian in the hope that I can memorise more here, as I have of three-line segments of the Inferno. I don't really know where to start or end in Marco Lombardo's explanation of the relationship between fate/the stars and free will in Canto 16 (the soul trying to cleanse himself in the murk is illustrated by Doré above). But I'll try to keep it down. This is the beginning of Marco's exposition to Dante.
Alto sospir, che duolo strinse in 'uhi!'
mise fuor prima; e poi cominciò: 'Frate,
lo mondo è cieco, e tu vien ben da lui.
Voi che vivete ogne cagion recate
pur suso al cielo, pur come se tutto
movesse seco di necessitate.
Se così fosse, in voi fura distutto
libero arbitrio, e non fora giustizia
per ben letizia, e per male aver lutto.
A deep sigh, which sorrow dragged out into 'uhi!', he uttered first, and then began: 'Brother, the world is blind, and you surely come from there. You who are alive still refer every cause up to the heavens, just as if they moved everything with them by necessity. If that were so, free choice would be destroyed in you, and it would not be just to have joy for good and mourning for evil. (16, 64-72)
'Lume v'è dato a bene e a malizia,' 'a light is given you to know good and evil,' Marco continues, tracing the origins with a lovely image which follows the feminine gender of 'anima',
Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia
prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,
l'anima semplicetta, che sa nulla,
salvo che, mosso da lieto fattore,
volontier torna a ciò che la trastulla.
Di picciol bene in pria sente sapore;
quivi s'inganna, e dietro ad esso corre
se guida o fren non torce suo amore.
From the hand of him who desires it before it exists, like a little girl who weeps and laughs childishly, the simple little soul comes forth, knowing nothing except that, set in motion by a happy Maker, it gladly turns to what amuses it. Of some lesser good it first tastes the flavour; there it is deceived and runs after it, if a guide or rein does not turn away its love. (16, 85-93)
This is a fine amendment of Augustine's concept of original sin: Dante is telling us that human nature as such is not corrupt, but simply makes bad choices (by the way, God, please send me a Virgil who looks like Hippolyte Flandrin's above). No wonder Dante wanted to reinforce and expand on Marco's words with Virgil's in Cantos 17 and 18. Although the language is drier, more theoretical, I love these lines:
'Né creator né creatura mai,'
comincio el, 'figliuol, fu sanza amore,
o naturale o d'animo, e tu 'l sai.
Lo natural è sempre sanza errore,
ma l'altro puote errar per male obietto
o per troppo o per poco di vigore.
'Neither Creator nor creature ever,' he began, 'son, has been without love, whether natural or of the mind, and this you know. Natural love is always unerring, but the other can err with an evil object or with too much or too little vigour. (17, 91-6).
More on love natural and elective, with further subdivisions, is to be found in the continuation of Virgil's observations in Canto 19, but this is probably more than enough to try and digest for now. Mighty Dante - intellect and poetry perfectly conjoined to make independent thought that is anything but simplistically moralising.