Tatiana Nikolayeva, Shostakovich, and Bach

Since I’m knee-deep in Shostakovich producing the NEC Truth to Power concert at Symphony Hall for video (more on that later,) can’t help but observe that today would have been the 90th birthday of the legendary-in-the-Soviet-Union-but-dimly-known-in-the-West pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva, (1924 – 1993), one of the few Russian pianists known for playing the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

That all started in 1950, when Nikolayeva traveled to Leipzig to compete in the Bicentennial edition of the Bach competition.  As her biography states:

On the jury that year was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was greatly impressed with Nikolayeva’s performances of Bach’s preludes and fugues of which she could play any from memory. Shostakovich wrote his set of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 for her between October 1950 and March 1951. Nikolayeva telephoned him every day during the period of composition, going to his home to hear him play the most recently written prelude and fugue, and gave the first performance of the complete work in Leningrad in 1952. Their friendship lasted until the day of his death, more than twenty-five years later

Check out the Maestra at work. Stunning.

 

A Milestone of the Millennium: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

What an unexpected delight on Good Friday to see today’s excellent Deceptive Cadence blog from my old my mates at NPR devoted to a program we produced 14 years ago, as part of our ambitious Milestones of the Millennium series.

A Visitor’s Guide To Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

And I do mean ambitious: We attempted nothing less than to “create a picture in sound of the pivotal events, places, movements, artists and musical works of the past 1000 years” through what amounted to a weekly documentary folded into our ongoing five-day-a-week production of Performance Today.   Oh yeah, and also with “build outs” on this newfangled Interwebs thingy.

PT’s Milestones of the Millennium Series

But wait -there was more! We also entered into a partnership with Sony Classical to create an entire Milestones of the Millennium CD project:  “The program series will be accompanied by Sony’s release of historic recordings highlighting the development of music over the past 1000 years. Each Sony Classical compact disc will contain musical choices inspired by the series, with liner notes written by the NPR commentators.”

High concept as hell, balanced by decidedly modest sales in the marketplace.  Doubt anyone has the entire collection, but I was surprised to see that after being out of print for quite some time, Sony has now made a few of the titles available as MP3 downloads on Amazon and other sites.  And you do see the odd CD copy for sale here and there.

But, bacj-s-bach-the-brook-and-the-wellspring-national-public-radio-milestones-of-the-millennium-0.jpgk to Bach:  Of the entire two years’ worth of productions, this program on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was one of the very best, hosted by NPR’s Lynn Neary and produced by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.  It’s a “guided tour” through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with commentary from such luminaries as noated Bach scholars Christoph Wolff and MIchael Marissen, tenor Ian Bostridge, conductors Joshua Rifkin,Ton Koopman, and Kenneth Slowik, as well as soprano Ann Monoyios.  Take a listen here.

Incidentally, Bach was the subject of the very first MIlestones of Millennium program, which aired January 1, 1999.  It was called  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Brook and the Wellspring, featuring a commentary by the Boston Conservatory’s Jan Swafford“Using the metaphor suggested by the composer’s name (“Bach” is German for “brook”), Swafford explains how Bach emerged from a family of musicians to become perhaps the greatest master and innovator of all time.”

The Brook and the Wellspring

Joy For J.S.: Simone Dinnerstein & Xuefei Yang

Revisiting one of our special evenings in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio we called “Sonatas and Partitas” featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein and Xuefei Yang, one of the first Chinese guitarists to play in the West….

 

 

 

 

C.P.E. Bach IV: Magnificat

One of the pieces by Carl Philipp Emmanuel that has never fallen out of favor in his native Germany is his Magnificat in D Major, a work that perhaps deliberately shares the same name – and even key signature – as one of J.S. Bach’s most famous choral works. It was composed in 1749, just a year before the death of Bach the father.

And there is some supposition that the C.P.E. wrote this expansive work originally as an audition piece to succeed J.S. as the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.   “Originally,” that is, because despite writing this Magnificat at an early age C.P.E. Bach revived this piece on several occasions during his career…and, like his father, recycled a lot of the movements into other sacred works of his.

Regardless, it stands as one of C.P.E. Bach’s greatest works – with many touches that suggest that the son learned well from his father…starting with the sound of the joyous natural trumpets at the opening of the piece. But you’ll also hear suggestions of the great choral works yet to come by Haydn and Mozart.  And how’s this for a little piece of history, courtesy of music scholar Jason B. Grant, who happens to be working on publishing the complete works of C.P.E. Bach this tricentennial year:

That C.P.E. Bach thought highly of his Magnificat is shown by his including it in a concert of 1786, a program which included the Credo of his father’s B Minor Mass, portions of Handel’s Messiah, and his own double-choir “Heilig.” Although it was a work from much earlier in his career, Bach clearly valued the Magnificat as a composition that could stand alongside not only his later Hamburg works, but also the great choral masterpieces of the previous generation

Check out these three sections in a very spirited performance by Czech-based Visegrad Baroque Orchestra, (“Barbara Maria Willi founded in 2006 Visegrad Baroque Orchestra in order to engage in collaborative work most talented musicians in Visegrad countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Czech Republic”) and the Ars Brunensis Chorus,

C.P.E. Bach III: A Double Concerto at the Crossroads….

There are all kinds of terms to describe the period of history in between the Baroque era of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, and the dawning of the so-called “Classical Era” personified by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.   “Rococo,”  “Style Galant,”  or to get really German-geeky about it, Emfindsamer Stil:

A musical aesthetic associated with north Germany during the middle of the 18th century, and embodied in what was called the ‘Empfindsamer Stil’. Its aims were to achieve an intimate, sensitive and subjective expression; gentle tears of melancholy were one of its most desired responses.

The above is taken from a surprisingly entertaining site I discovered called Musical Inclinations –  “an online resource examining the differences between the pre-classical and classical style.”

Or you could just listen to this wonderful example of a C.P.E. Bach concerto that sits at this crossroads of history: A Double Concerto for the new-fangled fortepiano, and the old-fangled harpsichord.   And, as it turns out, the very last of the 50-odd concertos he composed between 1733 and 1788.  And, as pianist Danny Driver mused in the NPR story the other day, “It’s literally, from the very first movement, one bar piano, one bar harpsichord, a little bit of orchestra, then something else. The exchange of ideas is so quick….it’s not postmodern, but it almost feels postmodern in the sense that there’s this sort of collation of different ideas and different feelings all sort of rolled into one. I think it’s of today as it was of its time.”

 

 

C.P.E. Bach I: Pletnev Plays the Keyboard Sonatas

As promised, some favorites by the vastly underrated second (and in my opinion, most interesting) son of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose 300th birthday is being observed this year.

For me, any discussion of inspired recordings of CPE’s works starts with Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s recording of C.P.E.’s Keyboard Sonatas.  This CD, along with Pletnev’s inspired reading of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, are close to being Desert Island Discs for me. Pletnev recorded them in the mid-late ’90s, and shortly afterward stopped giving recitals and playing much in order to concentrate on conducting the Russian National Orchestra.  (Though word has it that he’s recently gone back to playing a few select gigs in London and Switzerland….)

What I like about both discs is the way that Pletnev seems to cut through the sentimentality and preciousness that seems to affect/infect a lot of performances from this era, and uncover the passion and emotion that is embedded in the music.   That, and the flashes of innovation, schizophrenia, and downright wackiness that is characteristic in music of this era, especially in the hands of CPE Bach. On the one hand, he’s championing the old man’s legacy and Baroque ideals; on the other, he’s busting out and bending and twisting these tried-and-true forms into new shapes.

Check out “Side 1 Cut 1” on the disc:

 

 

The Sonata No. 17 in G minor.    It starts out like he’s paying homage to the old man’s great Rage Over a Lost Penny?)

 

Bach Around the Clock – with Archguitars

Archguitarists (what’s that?) Peter Blanchette and Elliott Gibbons bring down the house at our first-ever “Bach Around the Clock” event at First Lutheran Church in Boston.  You can see the complete line-up and listen to the entire webcast here.   Thanks to the amazing organist Balint Karosi of First Lutheran and the ever-energetic Joyce Painter Rice of the American Guild of Organists for making it happen!