Friday, July 14, 2006

For the Feast of the Reformation

Long-time and reasonably intelligent readers of this blog know that I am Roman Catholic, and the editorial policy of this blog, The Penitent Wagnerite, is solidly so as well. However, that doesn't mean that I don't love Protestant music. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, wrote his most impressive choral music in a solidly Lutheran context. His cantatas, specifically, were choral and solo works written for Lutheran services. John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, which - as best as I can tell - goes about to German churches of Bach's era and plays cantatas on the days for which they were written, has created many outstanding recordings.

My favorite Bach cantata is, like a lot of people, "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott." Luther's thunderous Reformation hymn is suitably dramatic. Bach, a devout Lutheran, takes this massive ode to Protestantism and turns it into something that any prelate in the "corrupt" Church would enjoy hearing. Gardiner reconstructs a complete Reformation Day service using Bach's cantatas,

"Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild," BWV 79
"Nun danket alle Gott," BWV 192
"Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott," BWV 80

This program really shows off Bach's skill at crafting exuberant, dramatic, and intelligent cantatas. Like all of Bach's vocal works, one has to pay attention the whole time, as there is so much going on around you. "Nun danket alle Gott" is a swirl of themes and approaches that prefigure the Passions. The great duet for alto and tenor, from BWV 80, "Wie selig sind doch die," is as perfect as anything he ever wrote for voice. Bach seems to have understood everything and written from an approach of knowing how to balance clarity of purpose with the internal architecture. The interplay, counterpoint, and sheer musicality of that duet astounds me every time I listen to it. If ever you listen to this day's cycle, and you really should listen to the whole thing, that you might understand what's going on, take a moment and really understand what Bach was doing - and be amazed.

For my own reasons, I am a big John Eliot Gardiner fan. His style is a little over-dramatic, and that probably puts him at the liberal end of the HIP crowd, but I think he gets the spirit of the works, even if he doesn't quite get the style correct for the doctrinaire. His current recording of BWV 80, recorded in Wittenberg's Schloßkirche, has an outstanding choir in his Monteverdi Choir and an intelligent and sensitive band in the English Baroque Soloists. Karl Richter's version is worth the trip, too, as he was quite the accomplished Bach conductor, and he has Peter Schreier singing the tenor role. James Gilchrist is a wonderful tenor, and a rising star on the HIP scene, but Schreier was the best lyric tenor of the second half of the last century. Hands down.

Forgetting, briefly, my Schreier-fanboyism, BWV 80 is really extraordinary. Like everything else Bach wrote.

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