JS Bach’s forebears – Day 3, Concert in Cambridge (23 September)

Rendons-nous at 3pm, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. The last two days have been about the detailed work; today’s rehearsal is dedicated to running everything and getting a sense of the programme as a whole. And what we’ve been perceiving piecemeal is now wholly clear: this music is splendid. On a technical level, it’s well built: there’s a solidity to the harmonic language and a proportion to the movements and developments that makes it fundamentally and unassumingly pleasing, like good home cooking or a solid piece of furniture. But it’s not mundane! Over the top of this basic construction is all sorts of inspired stuff. We’re beginning to tune in to surprising “moments” which reveal themselves in ever-increasing profusion and get us thinking of other pieces of music, some of them less likely than others. The opening sinfonia of Die Furcht des Herren, full of chromatic side-steps and bouncy rhythms, seems to want to jump-cut into something by Purcell; the next section of the same piece is Zadok the Priest avant, er, le prêtre. Elsewhere, look out for a chord straight out of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte (it happens more than once) – and my fellow tenor Ed Hastings tells me that the central chaconne of Meine Freundin, du bist schön is just like Philip Glass. “Which bit?”, I ask. “All of it”, he replies.

West Road is practically full and the audience treat us to a warm and enthusiastic reception as we walk out on stage. There’s clearly an excellent relationship between the Cambridge concert crowd and their resident orchestra and I reflect somewhat guiltily that I never once attended an AAM concert whilst I was at University here. Must have been occupied with more pressing young-man pursuits, like listening to German Baroque Church cantatas in my room. Anyway, here I am at last, five years late and standing on the wrong side of the counter, but as my Grandma used to say before we put her away, “better late than the devil you don’t.” Two pieces stand out for me tonight. The first is the solo alto cantata Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte, sung by Susanna Spicer with the ensemble. What a piece. Wizened, sour sorrow in the opening grinds from the strings followed by a sequence of limps into that “Barber” chord – and then the voice appears on a note that is somehow not quite the one you’re expecting. It’s a song of real pain, rendered inexpressibly beautiful by occasional phosphorescent pulses of major tonality which, just as in Schubert, are even more poignant than the enveloping black minor sea. The second is the oft-mentioned Meine Freundin, du bist schön and fair enough, because it was clearly designed to be the musical centrepiece of its original circumstances, namely a wedding party. As Dr Stephen Rose writes in his programme notes, the wedding party in question was possibly in honour of “another member of the Bach clan, the Arnstadt town musician also called Johann Christoph. The piece may then have been reprised at the wedding of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara in 1707.” These Bach weddings must have been real head-scratchers, what with everyone having the same name and marrying their cousins. Unsurprising then, if a little worrying, that one of the terms of endearment that Philippa Hyde finds herself directing again and again to Richard Latham is “mein Bruder”! The music seethes and bulges with innuendo, there’s a menace in the uncomfortably unsettled nature of the tonality. F sharps rub up against B flats, Es are sometimes flat, sometimes natural…it’s like the music needs to get a room and resolve. The central chaconne is an unjustly-neglected marvel. Against the repetitive ground rhythms laid down by the ensemble, the soprano dances a strange duet with the violin: she calm and languid, he fiendish and increasingly furious. It’s mantra-like, hypnotic. The finale is no less inspired: a boozy feasting chorus in which the bass repeatedly urges his guests to “get drunk, for it is God’s gift”. Anyone who wants to hear how it goes, and indeed to indulge with a modest tipple with some of us at a convenient hostelry afterwards, come to Wigmore tomorrow!

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