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Passion and Probity

Something in the air at holiday time impels me to write about Bach, and why not? Any one of his choruses shames the fraudulent warblings of the carolers on Muzak at the Mall. Any single fugue from his reams of keyboard music proclaims respect for the hearer’s brain that violates the primeval pap of the ad writers and the telemarketers. Any triumphal blast from one of his orchestral adventures betrays the falsity of the glitz and gimmickry and the fear-peddling exploitations of the Y2K bogeyman that haunts the air around us these days. We need Bach -- every day, but never more than now.

Alongside the Y2K trepidations is the awareness that 2000 -- provided, of course, that we get there -- is a Bach year: the 250th anniversary of his death, coming so soon after 1985 (the 300th of his birth), and 1950, 1935, etc. In 1935 the company we knew then as Victor Records issued a single Bach anniversary album (M-243, all you collectors out there!), a gathering of Leopold Stokowski‘s Wagner-size re-orchestrations of various Greatest Hits. The 2000 celebrations loom larger: The flood of complete box sets from several companies, bearing such solemnly simplistic titles as The Bach Edition, will probably require your adding another room to premises already burdened with such encyclopedic surveys as the 180-disc Mozart set from his last anniversary or the more recent mastodon releases of Artur Rubinstein’s Every Note on RCA and Philips‘ homage to everyone else in the pianistic realm. A massive pile of Bach from Germany’s Hanssler label, under the distinguished and watchful eye of Helmut Rilling, has already taken shape. France‘s Erato promises comparable mountainous rewards under Ton Koopman’s supervision. That country‘s Harmonia Mundi sends along a handsome down payment, a treasury of choral performances led by Belgium’s Philippe Herreweghe that includes the St. Matthew Passion and two box sets containing two dozen cantatas, plus one other disc which by itself epitomizes the triumphant joining of the summit of musical art of the past with the radiant enabling of contemporary technology.

That disc is a CD-ROM (French: cederom -- don‘t you love it?) that comes as a bonus with Herreweghe’s new recording (his second) of Matthew. Slip it onto your computer (PC only, alas), and set out on an “interactive journey” through the life of Bach, the life of the Germany of his time, including musical matters in both the Catholic and Lutheran churches, a probing examination of the words of this one work -- Bach‘s choice of biblical passages, and their cementing into a continuous text by Christian Friedrich Henrici alias Picander -- and, most important, a “Visit Into the Heart of the Work.” By some technological wizardry far beyond my comprehension, the entire 161 minutes of Bach’s masterpiece, which in the rest of the album lies across three CDs, has here been squeezed onto this single disc, in such a way that you can instantly call up and compare specific passages from anywhere in the score -- not quite in the spacious stereo of the full recording, but close enough. One chapter takes you through all the Evangelist‘s recitatives, so that you can trace the expressive outgrowth of Ian Bostridge’s miraculous, haunting performance. Another enables you to explore Bach‘s instrumentation from the inside: the interplay between the two choruses and orchestras. You want to hear some individual number -- countertenor Andreas Scholl’s “Erbarme dich,” for example, which will surely break your heart? The music plays, and the words scroll -- in three languages -- across one of the disc‘s gorgeously designed screens. At the end, Herreweghe himself delivers a long, detailed and fascinating talk on the stylistic vagaries of Bach performance over the decades and, more to the point, the emergence of Herreweghe’s own attitudes: his 1993 Matthew, in which the concept of phrasing largely derived from the way the instruments played, and his 1999 version, where he has altered his thinking to accord with vocal techniques. His new greater sense of legato, he claims, comes about from his closer association with singers.

This disc forms an extraordinary appendage to a performance no less extraordinary. More to the point, the creation of such a program -- like Harmonia Mundi‘s similar CD-ROM for Cosi Fan Tutte -- assumes the continued existence of a public dedicated to the listening experience as participation, not merely a bath in sound. It’s the same assumption that goes into the best of those movie DVDs, with their outtakes and director‘s interviews and the chance, any day now, to hear John Wayne speaking French.

Herreweghe makes his American debut next summer at Lincoln Center’s “Mostly Mozart” series; his Harmonia Mundi discography is vast and mostly wonderful, ranging over the choral literature from Monteverdi to Faure and venturing as far afield as a Beethoven Ninth, sober and sensible. His take on Bach does, indeed, suggest a new emergence, a step beyond (or, perhaps, back from) the bristling clarity of performances we once hailed as “authentic” -- Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, et al. The two boxes of cantatas (nine discs, priced as five) include the one work -- No. 8, “Liebster Gott, wann werd‘ ich sterben” -- that I gushed over a year ago (and will gladly do again anytime); it now comes in a box called Les Plus Belles Cantates, and it certainly belongs there. The set also includes a superb performance of No. 35, with Markus Markl’s winged playing of the great organ solo and Andreas Scholl for the vocal solos. And then there‘s the Cantata No. 78, with its duet for high voices that comes as close to out-loud giggling as anything in Bach. These aren’t “all the Bach cantatas you‘ll ever need,” to quote some recent promotional garbage, but they’re an excellent beginning.

We haven‘t exactly suffered choral deprivation hereabouts lately. Helmut Rilling, frequent Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra guest conductor, brought us Haydn’s The Creation in a lusty reading to stir the soul, abetted by a chorus of young voices from USC who sang as if they believed what they were singing. The even-younger voices of the Paulist Boys participated in the annual Messiah at Westwood‘s St. Paul the Apostle, with regular conductor Dana Marsh off on sabbatical and Martin Neary, recently of Westminster Abbey, standing in. The sounds were, as usual, resplendent; the reading, if more Westminster solidity than Westwood bright lights, still illuminated the power and the glory of Music’s Greatest Hit.