Mercoledi Musicale

Jacques Loussier (1934 – 2019)

It seems far too often these days that my Mercoledi Musicale posts are in memorium in their nature. Many of the great musicians that I grew up with are leaving the scene but fortunately their music making remains. The remarkable French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier left us last week at the age of 84. He had retired from perfoming in 2011 when he suffered a stroke during at performance at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr.

Laurent developed a fondness for Loussier and his brilliant takes on the works of Bach back in the 1990s and many of the recordings made by the Loussier Trio were, and still are, never far from our changer. The original Trio sold over 15 million records and performed in the range of 3000 concerts in the 15 years they were together. The original trio disbanded in the mid-70s but Loussier revived the group in 1985 for the tricentennial celebrations of Bach’s birth. Their most popular recording was this take on JSB’s Air on a G String.

At the age of eleven he heard a piece from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and fell in love with it. In an interview, he recalled ” … I found I loved to play the music, but add my own notes, expanding the harmonies and playing around with that music.” Though best known for his take on and obvious love for Bach he found inspiration in Satie, Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel, and Chopin.

He also composed the soundtrack scores for over 100 film and television including one of my favourite early TV series: Thierry la Fronde. Though I have to confess that my fondness for the adventures of the King’s Outlaw had more to do with Jean-Claude Drouot’s chest hair and buns than Loussier’s theme music. Ah the innocence of youth!

March 13 is Ear Muff Day – and given the temperature outside it would appear a goodly number are celebrating those appendage warmers.

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the selections at a recent Christmas concert was a version of Ave Maria, the angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary at the Annuncition.  Several people mentioned to me that it was not the version they knew.  They were familiar with the Franz Schubert setting* of the Angelic Salutation but not the Bach-Gounod that was being presented.  Though both are beautiful I have always preferred the unlikely combination of the great Baroque composer and the French romantic.

In 1853 Charles Gounod took the opening prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperirte Clavier of 1722, altered it slightly and superimposed an improvised melody over it.  It was published as an instrumental piece with the title Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach.  In 1859 music publisher Jacques Léopold Heugel issued it as a vocal piece using the Ave Maria as the text.  It has since become a favourite of singers (instrumentalists) in arrangements for various instrumental combination from guitar to organ to full symphony orchestra.

Here is a version sung by Kathleen Battle with Christopher Parkening on guitar.

I thought it would be interesting to hear just the Bach prelude as it originally sounded.  It’s played here by Glenn Gould in that highly individual style that was a mark of all his playing but particularly his Bach.

And while searching around I found this rather amusing and ultimately touching version by Bobby McFerrin and the audience at a Montreal concert in 2005.

*It should be noted that Schubert’s piece was composed as part of a song cycle based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.  It is a setting Ellen’s prayer to the Virgin Mary from a German translation of this story of Scottish clans and clashes.  It was only later that it was adapted as a setting of the Latin prayer.  Like the Bach-Gounod it was never intended as a sacred piece or for liturgical use.

On this day in 1812:   The New Orleans, the first steamboat on the Ohio River or the Mississippi River arrives its namesake, New Orleans, 82 days after departing from Pittsburgh.

Mercoledi Musicale

myra-hess
Dame Myra Hess giving one of her daytime concerts at the National Gallery, London during the Blitz. From October 1939 until April 1946 she arranged 1,698 concerts,  performing in many of them.

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.

Though there are several versions on YouTube with Baroque orchestra I very much enjoy the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford version with organ accompaniment.

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.

On this day in 1888: Louis Le Prince films first motion picture: Roundhay Garden Scene.