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Is There Sex After Bach? 

Wednesday, Nov 7 2001
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Morimur is up there on the charts, the latest implausible release from ECM, one of the few remaining labels to turn implausibility into solid musical virtue -- and perhaps into a few deutschemarks along the way. The title is something Latin about dying, and the message from the disc is that thoughts about dying were the principal fuel for J.S. Bach‘s phenomenal creative energy. A German scholar named Helga Thoene has discovered tunes -- or, let’s say, melodic turns of phrase -- in Bach‘s secular music that also turn up in his sacred chorales. Dr. Thoene would have us believe that some of these secular works, specifically the famous D-minor Partita for solo violin with its implausibly beautiful chaconne, fairly bristle with secret messages. This partita, she points out, was published in 1720, the year that Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, died. Therefore, we must regard the work as some kind of elegy. We must, of course, look beyond the fact that other works in that same published set of solo violin are downright jolly.

On the new disc, the violinist Christoph Poppen delivers the chaconne in a rather juicy manner that might set proponents of historically informed performances to dark mutterings. Then the Hilliard Ensemble, the British quartet of astonishingly wide repertory, sings a selection of Bach‘s chorale settings, including the poignant “Christ lag in Todesbanden” from a Good Friday cantata; these are interspersed with Poppen’s playing of the other movements from the partita. Then we get the chaconne again, this time with chorale melodies woven into -- or perhaps pushed up against -- the violin solos. The whole thing is very sad, very deep and, I have to admit, damned irresistible; the acoustical setting, in an echoey Austrian monastery, enhances the effect.

It is also, I regret to inform you, very fraudulent. Perhaps it doesn‘t seem that way in the context of its companions on the aforementioned charts: Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church and a newcomer (to me, at least), Russell Watson, whose vibrato nearly knocked my stereo off the shelf. The process of imposing veils of sexy, romantic sadness across well-meaning baroque creations goes way back: the Pachelbel Canon (a legitimate small piece made morose in unscrupulous performances), the “Albinoni Adagio” (latter-day pseudo-archaic fakery by a certain Remo Giazotto), and, of course, all the rainbow bridges from Bach to Wagner created by Leopold Stokowski’s orchestrations of organ works, choruses, even the long-suffering chaconne.

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Yes, there are points of resemblance between some of the minor-key chorales and articulations in the chaconne and countless other instrumental works. Tune detectives can have a fine time tracking these down from one work to another, and when they‘ve finished they can link arms with the people who find the face of Jesus in the burn marks on tortillas. There was a vocabulary of turns of phrase in Bach’s time, as in Mozart‘s and beyond; composers knew them, and the best composers knew what to do with them. At violinist Andrew Manze’s splendid recital last week, one of the Historic Sites events, a Bach sonata began with a close relative of the “Erbarme dich” melody from the St. Matthew Passion. Bach ripping off Bach? Secret message? Or merely a sublime composer drawing upon the musical language of his own time and celebrating its infinite variety?

Two recent discs allay, at least for the moment, my fears that the record industry has retreated into the arms of Bocelli, Watson and company -- although neither disc is what you‘d call a potent chart candidate. Both contain new American works by important young -- i.e., this side of 50 -- composers; both, even more surprising, are on major labels. On RCA there is Steven Mackey’s Tuck and Roll, delightfully rowdy, an omnium-gatherum of new-music tricks and attitudes on both sides of that fence which used to separate “serious” and “pop” and which has now been trampled down by music like this. For all its wild, eclectic stabs, this is very assured music, and its cockiness is just right in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who leads his young New World Symphony. Two other Mackey works, almost as interesting, fill out the disc; the 32 minutes of Tuck and Roll do the most to proclaim the 45-year-old Mackey as a major composer.

We already know that about Aaron Kernis, 41, whose music commands a sizable chunk of type in the latest Schwann catalog. On a recent Virgin disc, Truls Mork is the soloist, with Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra, in Kernis‘ Colored Field, originally a concerto for English horn, now recast for cello and, in the process, transformed into a far deeper work, somber at times and wildly ecstatic at others. Kernis amazes me; his growth from a sassy, try-anything wise guy to a composer of genuine profundity -- and a genuine skill in commanding and inventing orchestral sonorities -- should be a matter of considerable national importance. Even the Pulitzer people seem to have recognized his high quality, not exactly typical behavior for that august if often misguided body.

Finally, Der Protagonist comes to disc. Kurt Weill’s first opera was composed in 1926 to a text by Georg Kaiser, hailed with hats in the air a year before Weill‘s first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. The work comes crusted with legend, most of it Lotte Lenya’s charming invention: She and Weill did, or didn‘t, first meet when she was the Kaisers’ au pair and he was at work on the opera. That doesn‘t matter.

It matters that this is a strong, vivid and startling work. It is full of 1920s Berlin: the hard, sardonic dissonances of the young Paul Hindemith, the bits of jazz that were sweeping the city at the time, the lingering romanticism from Weill’s studies with Ferruccio Busoni. Add the slash that Brecht‘s cynicism brought to the mix a few months later, and you have the compleat Weill of Mahagonny and Three-Penny; its roots are already here in this violent tale of jealousy and murder, tinged with Expressionist accents: Pagliacci plus Caligari, perhaps. The performance, on the Los Angeles--based Capriccio label, is from Berlin, conducted by our own John Mauceri, with Robert Worle as the leader (protagonist) of a theatrical troupe and Amanda Halgrimson as the sister he loves and then murders. It runs just over an hour, and doesn’t waste a note along the way.

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