Bach’s 261st Death Day in Music

GermanyGermany Bach, Pärt, Nystedt, Schoenberg: Munich Bach Choir, Hansjörg Albrecht (conductor, organ) Ludwigskirche, Munich, 28.7.2011 (JFL)

Bach: Excerpts from the Mass in B-Minor
Pärt: Seven Magnificat Antiphons, Magnificat
Nystedt: Immortal Bach
Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden


Traffic buzzes along the Ludwigsstrasse outside the St.Louis University Church, busy cars rushing by, unaware of the 261st death anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach that’s being remembered with a concert inside.

A decent-sized crowd, slightly younger than the standard symphonic audience, has gathered to listen to the Munich Bach Choir under Hansjörg Albrecht (of local fame and known beyond the region though splendid organ recordings on the Oehms label) perform music by the death-day boy, Knudt Nystedt, Arvo Pärt, Arnold Schoenberg, and an organ sonata by Enjott Schneider.

The gingerly sung, finely nuanced Kyrie (a cappella) from Bach’s Mass in B-minor became a haunting, faintly-firmly touching jumble of glorious notes in the church’s soupy acoustic, with the echo of the alto and soprano section sounding as if a second chorus were placed on the organ loft at the back of St.Louis.

In “Immortal Bach”, Nystedt takes fragments from the gorgeous chorus (“Komm, o Tod, du Schlafes Bruder”) of Bach’s Cantata BWV 56, “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” and makes them come and go, completely enwrapping the ears in sound and then slipping back out again, like the wistfully limp fingers of a parting lover at the final goodbye. Short, simple, gorgeous, and with Nystedt’s usual intriguing twist (and some of the finest musical material to work with), it’s easy to see (or rather: hear) why “Immortal Bach” has become such a popular chorus piece.

Pärt’s brooding, contemplative “Seven Magnificat Antiphons” is typical post-avant-garde Pärt, dark and somber, droning on in his peculiarly enchanting way and becoming increasingly,  eventually assertive from its humble depth. The Magnificat, also performed, is essentially a shorter, concise version of it, ever pleasant without demanding attention in a program of so many other goodies.

Among those was the surprising highlight and centerpiece of the evening, the Tenth Organ Sonata (“Bach”) by Enjott Schneider (dedicated to and premiered by Hansjörg Albrecht). The sonata is replicable, which is to say: emotionally and intellectually comprehensible, music—composed in a language that the intuned contemporary ear can decipher without too much trouble, and better yet: appreciate. The work is taxing, at times, due to its length, and with several moments that made me wish to call in the discriminate editor’s scissors. Several organ-typical but sonata-untypical incoherent, episodic parts (especially jarring the rumble of low notes leading nowhere, or rapid register shifts and dynamic terracing that make would-be melodic flow impossible), and awkward usage of the instrument made sure that the first movement, rather than tickling glory from the queen of instruments, made the organ sound clumsy. But there is also beauty, considerable flow and forward momentum in the second movement, with Matthew Passion references beautifully pasted in. The Third movement, by some measure the longest, plays with dynamic extremes (not always successfully) and the B.A.C.H. motif. The work would have benefited from a shorter concert or the concert from a shorter sonata, but that’s a small complaint in light of an overall impression that remains (even days after the fact) best expressed as “terrific”.

It was hard to tell whether Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” op. 13 (1907) was actually highly romantic or modern or just washed together in the resonance of St.Louis in which it sounded like much of both. Dona nobis pacem from the B-minor Mass, a little timid-squeaky at first, rounded the Bach-tribute out, before the chorus let the listeners back out into the night with a fitting encore of “Immortal Bach”.

Jens F. Laurson