Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Dances of Sorrow
Ensemble Memento (Marie Alexis - soprano, Anna Zander - alto, Fredrik Mattsson - tenor, Joakim Schuster - bass), Klara Hellgren - violin
rec. Hemsjö Church, Alingsås, Sweden, June 27-29 2016
NILENTO RECORDS NILCD169 [45:41]
I seem to be in a sequence of frustrating discs to review at the moment. What is it about labels such as Nilento that they take an interesting concept, get it performed by World Class performers yet due to the trendily minimalist packaging end up with a product of little more worth than highclass wallpaper music? The listing intrigued me; "Partita No.2 for solo violin in an arrangement for solo violin and four voices". Given that this Partita would be on my desert island and I have an abiding fascination for arrangements this was an obvious disc to request for review.
So what could this arrangement possibly be? Except for artist biographies, here is the entire booklet liner text: "In 1720 Bach wrote his Partita in d-minor for solo violin. Apart from being a monumental masterpiece in itself, it is also full of hidden messages, numerology, symbolism and chorale quotations. A fascinating theory is that the Partita in d-minor was written as an epitaph to Bach’s wife Maria Barbara Bach. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has a theory that within the theme of the Ciaccona, Bach has hidden a numerical code of his wife’s name and year of death. The chords and melodies in the violin part derive from several of his own hymns, all with messages about death and grief – but also full of hope. In this arrangement the chorale fragments are sung along with the violin part, like pieces of a perfectly laid puzzle." Nothing else, limited texts which do not show the works from which they are excerpted, no elaboration on what text is sung where or why, no detail of who prepared this arrangement. Why no elaboration from Helga Thoene explaining the basis for her theory and its practical realisation.
The CD is divided into twenty tracks. In general there are two or three excerpts from Bach cantatas or passions followed by a movement of the Partita. The liner gives no indication at all of which Bach works have been ‘mined’ why they have been chosen or how they have been arranged. All of the choral excerpts are for four solo voices except suddenly for track 10 the solo violin adds a gentle elaboration of the chorale melody. Really, really gorgeous playing and singing - heart-breakingly lovely in fact - but for goodness sake why!? Another big why; the gently sinking opening phrase of the marvellous cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden is used as a near obsessive cantus firmus through the disc - returned to in variant forms six times before the cumulative arrival of the great Chaconne. Again beautifully and expressively sung every time by the excellent quartet of solo singers - but why this frequent return? If you are going to produce a concept album it’s a good idea to let people in on the concept. Without it I find it hard not to hear this as 'just' a rather beautiful disc of mellow Bach to have quietly on in the background. This impression is slightly reinforced by a slightly held, detached style of singing from the quartet. Beautifully blended, technically very assured, but personally I feel these great moments in Bach can take more humanity, greater pain, more overt expressivity. This is of course a matter of taste and I bow to the sheer skill and refinement of the singing here.
But the idea is fascinating and one that deserves to be debated and dissected. Of course - as it should be - the highlight of the disc is the closing Chaconne. Violinist Klara Hellgren is absolutely superb, as indeed she is throughout all the movements of the Partita. Not surprisingly, the presence of the vocal quartet singing mainly chorale-based material allows her less rhythmic freedom than she displays elsewhere in the preceding movements. But on the other hand this is by no means an overly 'straight' or insensitive performance. The church acoustic benefits the music greatly and for all my frustration up until this point the performance of the Chaconne by Hellgren and Ensemble Memento is very beautiful and affecting indeed. My problem with this movement is that I assume the chorale fragments presented earlier on the disc are now being woven into the main work. Why were specific fragments chosen for specific moments? I have a nagging feeling that just because the chordal progression of a chorale fits the same progression in the Chaconne does not mean that the two were meant to relate. For sure, it fits and sounds beautiful but...... Again, at the magnificently climactic moments in the Chaconne I would like the choral group to push the envelope of their perfectly manicured purity. This remains steadfastly 'held' singing - somewhat at odds with Hellgren's violin playing - she seems much more keen to play on the expressive edge. There should be a booklet groaning with content and detail here. Also, it is very hard to hear the words being sung during the Chaconne - the references to Christ lag are clear but I struggle to pick up all the other links to music or text. So what remains is this beautifully executed mellifluous music.
As an aside - Dr Thoene's work has been presented in rather beautiful
publication which I have not been able to source any text from online. However
there is a submission for a Masters Degree at Ball State University by Irene
Stroh which examines and explains Thoene's work (see
here). I have read parts of this submission and it is fascinating and
compelling and it makes clear that the individual tracks on this CD do relate
to 'hidden chorales' in the main Chaconne which the addition of the voices
highlights. But why couldn't the liner tell me that!
So, a very well played and beautifully performed disc that completely fails to explain itself or its content. The playing time is very short but I suppose the defence for that is to keep the disc solely focussed on the concept. The engineering/production is good - as mentioned the acoustic works to the benefit of all the performers and suits the 'mood' of the music well. The presentation of the disc is trendily minimalist - all black and white with a cardboard sleeve opening out to allow the all but pointless liner to be tucked into a slot on the left hand side. I would be the first person to say music should not require an instruction manual to allow the listener to gain maximum enjoyment but in a case as here with a conjectural reconstruction the thinking behind the method is vital. Bravo to Hellgren and Ensemble Memento - Nilento records - must do better.
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV277: I. Choral, Christ lag in
Cantata, Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahrenen Herz, BWV
136: VI. Choral, Auf meinen lie [1:33]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden,
BWV4: III. Choral fragment, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt [00:24]
No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004: I. Allemanda [5:21]
Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4: III. Choral, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Cantata, Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim, BWV89: VI. Choral, Wo
soll ich fliehen [00:33]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004:
II. Corrente [2:44]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV277: I. Choral,
Christ lag in Todesbanden (2) [2:35]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. I:
Choral, Dein Will gescheh [1:00]
St. Matthew Passion, BWV244, Pt. II:
Choral, Befiehl Du Deine Wege [1:23]
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden,
BWV4: III. Choral fragment, Den Tod niemand zwing 00:24]
Partita No. 2 for
Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV1004: III. Sarabanda [3:58]
Choral, Jesu meine
Freude, BWV358 [1:24]
Cantata, Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV188: VI.
Choral, Auf meinen lieben Gott [00:38]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. I:
Choral, Jesu Deine Passion [1:01]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor,
BWV1004: IV. Giga [4:37]
St. John Passion, BWV245, Pt. II: Choral, In
meines Herzens Grunde [1:12]
Choral, Nun lob', mein Seel', den Herren,
Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV4: III. Choral
fragment, Den Tod niemand zwing [00:21]
Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in
D Minor, BWV1004: V. Ciaccona [14:24]