Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scherchen: Bach Cantatas 140 and 32 (Wachet Auf & Liebster jesu Mein Verlangen)

This is the second post in an ongoing project to put up Scherchen's Bach Cantata recordings. My feelings about these performances was expressed in the first post, and there is abundant information about these works available from sources more knowledgeable than I. I will only add the perhaps uninteresting note that the Wachet Auf included on this record is my favorite recorded performance. There are many, many others I like, and with soprano soloists a whole lot more appealing to me than Magda Laszlo, but this remains to my mind the most deeply felt, even if not the most beautifully sung performance of this work on record. One sometimes loses the sense of the sacred cantatas as church music, especially if, like me, you do not speak German. But the musical expression here is profoundly liturgical, and though I do not share Bach's religious beliefs, the profound truth of those beliefs to him is evident through this performance, and is deeply moving.

Link to all files


  1. Lawrence, Sometimes I entertain the heretical notion that Scherchen and Klemperer's Bach benefited from, dare I say it, an evolution of performance standards. They refused to forget the intervening history between their and Bach's time. I remember when I heard Robert Craft's first LP of Gesualdo and thinking he is hearing this music with the prismatic benefit of 20th century music--and this is a very good thing. And so as I listened to these two cantatas I thought they had a matchless warmth and humanity. They were simply beautiful music created by a man for whom God was more real than anything else. The performances were so lyrical, intimate and comforting. Thank you for these magnificently expressive modern readings of Bach. I won't stop listening to "original instrument" recordings, of course, but I will hold them accountable to the high standards of beauty in Scherchen's recordings.

  2. David: Thanks for your insightful comments. Heresy is good at helping to keep orthodoxies honest.

    Although I have made no secret of the fact that I prefer modern instrument performances of this repertory, I do, in fact, listen to original instrument performances and try to judge them on their merits, in spite of my own prejudices. It seems clear, too, that original instrument practice has itself evolved. I found most of the early stuff perfectly detestable, but much of what I originally objected to – the weak, moaning string attack and the questionable intonation – has improved over time, at least among certain performers. The unyieldingly plaintive string sound of the earlier practice drove me to distraction, even anger; I attributed it, perhaps uncharitably, to a technical inability to perform a clean attack on gut strings. Whether it was a technical deficiency, though, or a theoretical stopgap that has fallen into disfavor, I was happy to see it evolve into something I like better in the performers I do admire.

    My goal is to give a fair hearing to any musicians courageous enough to perform some of the most sublime music ever written and not to allow my blind spots to overcome a sympathetic musical judgment. That I do not always succeed is obvious. My tastes and preference have remained intact, although not with the negative vehemence toward alternatives that they once exhibited.

    As for Bach’s sense of the palpable presence of God, which he communicates so powerfully in the religious cantatas: without at least an empathetic appreciation of that sensibility, it would be hard for one to enter fully into the works in question. One does not have to believe in God, but one has to know and feel that Bach did, and that he experienced that belief as an enduring presence beyond certainty itself.

    Thanks again.

  3. David, You expressed so accurately what I feel about the best "modern" performances of early music, which is coming to grips with, and conveying, the essence of the music (compositionally and technically) rather than the quaint incidentals and surface matters of instruments, timbres, bowing and blowing, and all that sort of thing which so fascinate "H.I.P." performances and those who admire them. Bravo!

    Pax, Jerry Parker

  4. Thanks for posting these older interpretations of some classic Bach. They bring back many memories. However, in my favorite cantata, Wachet Auf, track 5 is a duplicate of track 4. But there's good news. The missing track 5 is actually incorporated into track 6, if memory serves me right.

  5. Ken: Thank you for your kinds words. When I get some time, probably mid-September at this point, I'll try to correct the tracking problem in Wachet Auf; it's one of my two favorite cantatas to, along with the Actus Tragicus, so I want it to be right.