As he so often does my friend Richard led me astray one morning last week. Well not really astray but a chance posting he made on FaceBook had me searching for Dame Myra Hess playing her piano arrangement of Bach’s chorale “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) which ends both sections of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben.
And as so often happens when we stray from the paths of righteousness – okay that may be a bit dramatic – we happen upon all manner of delights. In this case it led me to a recording of the Hess piano version by Dinu Lipatti. Though I was familiar with the name I had to plead ignorance of his recordings. Of the many performances of the transcription available it seemed to me the one that avoided the pitfall of religious bathos that often overcomes pianists – even Dame Myra in later years – when they put hands to keyboard for this piece. A bit of research revealed that it was the first piece Lipatti performed as a professional in Paris at the age of eighteen in May 1937. His mentor and close friend the French composer and teacher Paul Dukas had died three days before Lipatti’s debut recital and he dedicated the piece to Dukas’ memory. It was also to be the last piece he played in public on 16 September 1950 at the Besançon Festival. Weakened by Hodgkin’s disease he had attempted a demanding programme and was so exhausted that he could not play the final Chopin waltz and substitute the Bach-Hess instead. He died three months later at the age of 33.
Between 1947 and 1950 he made a series of recordings for EMI under the legendary producer Walter Legge. This recording was made in 1947 at London’s Abbey Road Studio but for some reason it was never released. I’ve been exploring the catalogue of Lipatti’s performances and it’s been a great discovery and a constant pleasure.
During his tenure in Leipzig Bach was required to produce almost 60 cantatas over the church year. In 1723 – his first year at Thomaskirche – Bach took an Advent cantata he had written at Weimar in 1719 and adapted it for the Feast of the Visitation. He added recitatives, rearranged the arias and added musically identical chorales to end each part of the “new” cantata. And following the Lutheran tradition the chorales were based on an existing hymn tune that was familiar to the congregation. When they heard the melody of Johann Schop‘s Werde munter, mein Gemüthe (Be Alert, my soul) they would have been reminded of Johann Rist’s text – which they may well have sung earlier in the church year. Bach was to use the melody again in his St. Matthew Passion.
Both Schop’s hymn and Bach’s chorale were meant to be a bit more celebratory than most performances of the Bach-Hess piano transcription, or for that matter many choral performances, would lead us to believe. For some reason generations of pianists, organists, choirs and soloists have given it a solemn po-faced reading that doesn’t quite go with the title or the text. Hearing it too often performed as a dirge at weddings, funerals or weddings that seemed like funerals it is a piece I have avoided in recent years. The honesty of Lipatti’s performance and the purity of the Somerville sound has reminded what an incredible piece it is.