Bach on Thursdays
Douglas Mews – organ, and Andrew Joyce – cello
Bach: ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ – three settings of the Easter hymn:
From The Little Organ Book, BWV 625; Fantasia, BWV 695; Chorale harmonisation, BWV 277
Fugue in G minor, BWV 578
Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541
Suite for solo cello No 1 in G, BWV 1007
Church of St Mary of the Angels
Thursday 4 April, 12.45pm
This was the first of a new series of six concerts at lunchtime Thursdays devoted to Bach. Unusually, the series puts together a number of organ works, not all very well known, alongside all six of Bach’s cello suites.
It looks like a joint initiative of the church’s musical director, Robert Oliver and Douglas Mews; at this first concert the audience was big enough to reassure the church that it is valued and I hope further such series can be organised in future.
Though there are regular opportunities to hear the church’s fine organ at Sunday services, it is important as well for such an instrument to be heard in a non-religious setting, in music that is not likely to be played on Sundays.
Mews had chosen three of Bach’s arrangements of the Lutheran chorale, ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, all composed in the years before 1708, that is, at either Arnstadt or Mühlhausen, The three together seemed to make a satisfactory unity. The text itself was set as a cantata for Easter Sunday (BWV 4), among the earliest surviving cantatas; the choice of this text was thus appropriate to the date.
The first, an organ chorale, or chorale prelude, in D minor, is from The Little Organ Book, and it presented the melody in its authentic 16th century guise: sombre, fitting the words that describe the dying Christ. The second, a Fantasia, BWV 695, is also in D minor. The term ‘fantasia’ relates to a freer character that derived from an earlier period, and it exhibited a quite different spirit: bright, lively quavers in the treble over crotchets in the base line. The third piece, in A minor (BWV 277), was one of four based on the same Lutheran chorale, this time, taken from a four-part choral piece that falls in the category of ‘harmonised chorales’ in the Bach-werke-verzeichnis (numbers BWV 253 – 438). It was played at the same tempo as the preceding piece, but heavier diapason stops gave it a certain funereal grandeur.
The three compositions had clear kinship as well as stylistic similarities, but all sounded splendid in the church’s acoustic at the hands of this highly gifted player.
The other two organ pieces were non-chorale-related; the Fugue in G minor (BWV 578) was a further composition from the pre-Weimar years (1708-23, when most of the organ preludes and fugues, and the like, were written). Fast, fluid writing for flute stops was supported by flowing entries on the pedals. Its fugal character was not its most marked feature, suggesting more similarity to the three chorale preludes played earlier. Again, Mews’s performance displayed the richness and variety of the organ’s resources as well as his intimate familiarity with Bach’s idiom and technical demands which are great even in these early works.
Before the last organ piece (all from the organ gallery over the west door behind us) Andrew Joyce appeared at the front of the chancel to play Bach’s first cello suite. He spoke briefly about the work but, without a microphone, his voice did not carry very far into the church.
Nor was the cello heard to its best advantage for an audience that was scattered throughout the church. From experience, one needs to be in the front half dozen rows in big churches to hear chamber music and solo voices clearly.
The performance itself was rapturous however. My last hearing of Bach’s suites was from Colin Carr at the Nelson Chamber Music Festival, and this performance was in the same class, revealing not only the remarkable formal musical conception that characterises the suites but their emotional and expressive qualities as well. Joyce applied his own instincts and his thorough understanding of what lies inside the music, to stretch notes, make pauses, allow tempi to fluctuate, and the ends of phrases to fade. In less mature hands such treatment can sound affected and self-indulgent, but the playing simply told the audience that the cellist had lived with the music for many years and had the confidence of familiarity and deep musicality to hold us enraptured.
Mews then resumed his seat at the organ to play the Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541, composed at Weimar. The Prelude was designed to arrest attention, beginning with its bold attack and staccato accompaniment, all brilliantly coloured by stops that expressed some kind of triumph. The fugue followed in the same mood of sanguinity and optimism, using a theme beginning with five repeated notes in an energetic rhythm. Its polish and exuberance left the audience with every encouragement to come back next week.