Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bach and Easter

...go together like bread and butter, or, to raise it to Bach's level, like a raisin loaf lovingly crafted from the finest white flour, freshest yeast and the most succulent raisins, together with freshly churned French country butter produced by smiling cows and sold in a roll.

Lithuania combines these two as well (the Bach and the Easter). Alas, the raisin loaf is as it should be, but it's smothered in margarine. Never in 6 years in Lithuania have I heard any one of the great Passions. I'm not sure what the problem is - the cost? But certainly the St John's Passion can be put on with quite a small choir and orchestra; I've seen it in Edinburgh, where the soloists also formed the choir, and each choir member had a role. The St Matthew's Passion needs a double orchestra, and choir... The best we get is the Easter Oratorio.

This is an odd work. Most of Bach's choral works start with a blast of choir and orchestra, apart from maybe some of the six Christmas Oratorio cantatas. This piece, scored for a very comprehensive band including 3 trumpets, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, timpani and the rest starts with two purely instrumental movements. This set of programme notes suggests that the opening describes everyone running to see where Jesus has gone, seeing that the tomb is empty. The following Adagio is described as the mournful sobbing about the final sin - the apparent theft of his body. (A bit of a melodramatic set of programme notes, this, no?). The four characters at the grave are Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James (were they all called Mary at the time?), Petras and Jonas; erm, Peter and John. These two are accused by the older Mary of not being very upset, but they say they are stricken with grief. (Men; even in Bach's time they could not show their feelings!). This is followed by a couple of arias, one by Mary Magdalene, one by Peter, which the programme notes describe as 'The sinuous winding figures in the recorders [flutes] and violins make a soft pillow for Peter’s contemplation' - it's where he finds the abandoned shroud and finds it gives him some comfort. Then they hasten off to try and find Jesus and find the choir of the faithful instead. Jesus, it seems, is never found. The piece was written in 1725, when Bach was 40, so it's not a particularly early work (BVW 249 - but set this against the tortuous and much more cerebral violin sonatas and partitas with BVW numbers of 1000+). The programme notes also suggest that part of this music was recycled from a birthday cantata for the Duke of Saxony 6 weeks earlier, where Bach had written the music such that it could be used for both. He was a busy man, was our J S Bach.

The performance by musica humana in the Lutheran Church went well. The church was packed, the orchestra was exceptionally packed, though setting one viola against 6 violins is a bit optimistic - but there would have been little room for another player. The choir was 'Jauna Muzika', one of the top Vilnius choirs (which will one day soon pass the sell-by date of 'Jauna' - 'young'), conducted by Augustinas Venclovas. The soloists were Ieva Prudnikovaite, mezzo, looking stunning as ever but having little to do, Raminta Vaicekauskaite, soprano, who had a beautiful and very long aria, accompanied by the leader of the second violins, the talented Mindaugas Zimkus, tenor and an unknown bass, who I have often seen around but always thought he was part of the Italian centre - he has that kind of good looks. He was the replacement for someone else so I did not take his name. The two men were virtually joined at the hip in their protestation of grief aria; it was very difficult and they did very well. The orchestra did well, too - Robertas Beinaris as always on first oboe; he's just so good at Bach!

The Oratorio was preceded by the third orchestral suite. It's the one with the Hamlet [cigarillo] theme tune. Such a corny piece - did Bach really write pizz over the bass line in the repeats of that movement? It was hard to hide a grin... It's interesting that it had much the same orchestration as the Easter Oratorio, but it seems it was written during the same period of Bach's life. And it made economic sense for the Filharmonija to engage the additional wind players and get them to play in both pieces ('you will play as many notes as we can squeeze out of you!'). The orchestra did well, loudly and energetically. I'm not sure that it was totally necessary to play all repeats in all movements.

I suppose I am now taking a risk in repeating the joke told to me by an Irish catholic 10 years ago:
'Tis Easter Sunday. Jesus wakes up in his tomb, and thinks to himself, 'where are those folk who were going to roll the stone away'. He hears nothing so he starts pushing and shoving, pushing and shoving, until finally he manages to roll the stone away. He wanders off towards the town, only to meet a couple of his disciples rushing towards the grave site. He asks them what happened. 'Ach, you know how it is, Lord. Judas had come into some money and we all decided to go for a drink....'