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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750) and Anton WEBERN (1883 - 1945)
WEBERN: Streichquartett (1905), version for chamber orchestra
BACH: Cantata No. 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" BWV 4
WEBERN: Fünf Sätze op. 5, version for string orchestra
The Hilliard Ensemble
Münchener Kammerorchester/Christoph Poppen
Rec: January 2001, Himmelfahrtskirche Sendling, Munich
ECM NEW SERIES 1774 [69.06]


Juxtapositions of ancient and modern can at times be interesting, but at other times they may clash. This recording includes works by Bach and Webern, in an attempt to highlight the "connections" between the two; connections that were, obviously, in just one direction. ECM describes this recording as follows: "J.S. Bach's cantata "Christ lag in Todesbanden" provided a context for "Morimur", the celebrated Christoph Poppen/Hilliard performance of Bach's "Ciaconna" which revealed "hidden chorales." The cantata is now at the centre of a new recording focused on connections between Bach and Anton Webern."

There are several ways of judging a recording like this. One can look at it from a Bachian point of view, and judge the Bach works for their absolute value. One can look at it from a more modern point of view, judging the Webern works as one should; or one can try and mix the two, offering a point of view that reflects both types of music. Yet this third choice, arguably the most appropriate way of looking at such a recording, is fraught with danger. For not only is the musical language of these two composers radically different, but the critical language is as well.

I confess to not only being unfamiliar with Webern's music, but also to not truly considering it music, at least in an absolute sense. While I can respect Webern as a composer forged by his time, I cannot find much in his music that makes me want to listen to it. The arrangement of his string quartet for chamber orchestra - a curious undertaking; as if the string quartet itself were not good enough - is somewhat interesting. It is less grating than the Five Movements for String Quartet, also arranged for string orchestra, which sound resolutely random. Yet one is hard-pressed to find any influence from Bach in this work. Webern's orchestration of Bach's Ricercar, from the Musical Offering, is also interesting, but attempts to drain the music of its vital energy and fit it into the mold of the early 20th century. Others have done worse things to Bach's music; this arrangement is curious, in its use of a wide range of instruments. Webern doesn't seem to want the listener to follow the individual voices of the fugues.

As for the "real" Bach on this disc, the Hilliard Ensemble realize an interesting interpretation of Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. This performance, using the one-voice-per-part (OVPP) approach, is ground-breaking. The well-known cantata is usually performed with a choir, but here the Hilliard Ensemble fill all the parts with just their four voices. Many other OVPP recordings of cantatas exist, but few have managed the unity of sound that the Hilliards provide. While other recordings feature four soloists, this interpretation features a group of four singes who have been working together for more than two decades (note, however, that the performance features three members of the ensemble with a soprano, Monika Mauch.) The performance is stunning. The minimal interpretation attests to the validity of the OVPP approach, but I can understand that this recording will shock many listeners used to hearing a choir in this work. The haunting second movement of the cantata, a duet between soprano and alto, is unforgettable. Fortunately, the orchestra stays out of the way for much of the music, and does not overwhelm the soloists, which is too often the case in OVPP recordings.

The final track on this disc is a reprise of the Bach/Webern Ricercar, which, according to the liner notes, "will be heard differently now, after everything that has come before it". Um, right. It certainly is a bit different: 10 seconds longer than the first track - but other than that I don't get it. I guess it's a modern thing. I'm too old-fashioned to appreciate the subtle implications of having the same work twice on a disc.

I apologize for dismissing the Webern works on this disc so curtly, and perhaps offending believers in another type of music. The Bach on this disc is very interesting. It would be nice to hear the Hilliard Ensemble record more OVPP cantatas, but perhaps without the Webern.

Kirk McElhearn

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