An Early Easter: Bach at Noon, 12 April 2011

The music for our final Bach at Noon of the season includes something familiar and something new – Mary Watt, oboe, Loretta O’Sullivan, ‘cello, and Greg Funfgeld, harpsichord, will play Bach’s Sonata in G-Minor for oboe, BWV 1030b.  This is a reprisal of the music we heard earlier this season in the form of the B-Minor flute sonata, transposed down a third, with the different sonority of the oboe.  This marks a wonderful opportunity to hear our principal oboe, Mary Watt (she of the iron lungs and absolutely impeccable musicianship) reprise music that was warmly received in a performance with Robin Kani (our principal flute) this past fall at Bach at Noon.  In the spirit of this reprisal, I’m going to “reprise” some of my thoughts about the piece from an earlier post with a few modifications:

If we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of instrumental sonatas as a solo instrument with subservient accompaniment, Bach’s writing here is of a different kind altogether, in which several independent parts make up a musical whole. At times you will hear oboe and harpsichord united in a florid musical dialogue, sometimes the harpsichord by itself. Melodic material is traded off between harpsichord and flute, and musical ideas are developed in a variety of ways as they work through several keys, frequently elaborating on the theme introduced at the beginning of the piece. This is elaborate music, but no less beautiful for its complexity. The opening Andante (indicating a walking sort of tempo), full of melodic invention and development, gives way to a beautiful and more simple Largo. A brief Presto creates a modulation of tempo and key into the final Allegro, an ornate and swift-moving dance.  This performance will also feature the wonderful basso continuo playing of Loretta O’Sullivan, with the ‘cello adding a firm foundation of bass to the dialoge between harpsichord and oboe.  I’m excited to hear what Mary, Loretta and Greg will bring to this piece on the heels of Loretta’s and Greg’s excellent collaboration on the Beethoven ‘cello sonata at last month’s Bach at Noon.  Likewise, any opportunity to hear Mary’s astonishingly beautiful playing is one that lovers of music won’t want to miss!

The performance will continue with Bach’s Cantata No. 67, which was composed for the Sunday after Easter.  The piece begins with a florid instrumental accompaniment, contrasting swift moving oboes with ascending figures in in the strings.  The choir joins soon thereafter with ascending figures that mimic the rising strings in the the opening instrumental prelude.  A vigorous choral fugue follows, with repetition of the ascending figures.  The text for this movement is an admonition to hold onto to the risen Christ of Easter (which Christians will celebrate in two weeks’ time).

Next, in an aria for our tenor soloist (the redoubtable Robert Petillo for our performance), the librettist confesses the struggle and torment of the disciples left behind after the resurrection.  An plea for the risen savior to appear ends the aria.

A recitative by the alto solist (audience favorite Leslie Johnson) speaks of Christ’s power over hell, and sets up the chorale that follows, which celebrates the resurrection, and ends with an alleluia.  Another alto recitative personalizes the struggle with sin as encapsulated by the librettist – this time setting up the most exciting movement of the piece.

The orchestra begins feverish figurations that are meant to portray a fierce battle, and then suddenly grinds to a halt as the basses of the choir, assuming the voice of Jesus, sing “friede sie mich euch,” “peace be with you.” At the end of that statement, the battle music continues, this time with the upper three voices of the choir joining in on texts that command hell and Satan to surrender.  Again, the basses, in the voice of Christ, grind the battle to a halt with the words of peace, and again, at their conclusion, the battle music begins again.  This time, the choral music overlaid is more peaceful in nature, and reflects on the peace that Christ won for sinners in his resurrection.  Again, the blessing of peace is conferred by the basses, and the battle music resumes, this time as a prayer for heavenly intervention in our battle with death, and again, the basses sing Friede sei mit euch! This movement has Bach painting with broad strokes in a vivid portrayal of an apocalyptic battle with lightning-fast string figurations and matching dexterity in the choral writing, and is a thrill for listeners and performers, alike.  The cantata concludes with a beautifully-harmonized chorale that seeks the intervention of the Prince of Peace.

These pieces will be a wonderful foretaste of Easter, and will also be a beautiful close to a season of fantastic music in our Bach at Noon series.  The doors will open at 11:30 am – please plan to arrive early to get a good seat.  I will soon be writing more about the upcoming 2011 Bethlehem Bach Festival, which begins in less than a month’s time.  Please check back often!

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