I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

J.S. Bach: Bach De occulta philosophia

José Miguel Moreno with Emma Kirkby and Carlos Mena, voices

I am not sure where I first encountered mention of this album which was first released in the late 1990s. The reissue has an updated cover, featuring a mess of audio/computer cords that I found interesting (there's a face on the cover, and other arragements inside the booklet). I had placed it on a wishlist (a place where I bookmark interesting things, not always intending to buy), but then surprise—it was under the Christmas tree.

Included are two of Bach’s works for solo violin (BWV 1001, BWV 1004), played on the lute by Moreno. First auditioned on my loudspeaker system, I was impressed with the sound quality, especially of the lute alone. I immediately swapped tracks comparing it to Nigel North’s rendition of Bach on the lute and then with Paul O’Dette. Between the three, sound-quality wise, I liked Moreno’s recording the best. Kudos to the sound engineers.

Another apt comparison is Paul Galbraith, who recorded the sonatas and partitas on an especially-created guitar that includes an amplification box. Then I stopped. Finding the “ideal sound” was a fruitless exercise, because then there’s the interpretation, too, right?

For instance, I liked Moreno’s arrangement of the 2nd partita better than North’s arrangement.

In the end, I couldn’t say I liked any one performer “the best.” Each did some interesting things, but they also left me wanting, too, in their unique ways. The first release by Chris Thile comes closest to an ideal performance for me, but he’s only released one-half of the violin works thus far, on mandolin.

What sets this recording apart, however, is the first track, Bach’s Chaconne from the 2nd partita, combined with voices (BWV 1004.5). At first I didn’t like the effect at all. For one, the voices were too “hot” or “loud” in the mix for my setup, requiring me to reduce the volume. Second, the chaconne, with fast notes, is being buried underneath these voices singing long notes. The effect is weird and off-putting. Why ruin this great piece of music?

Then I read the booklet which explained that a German article suggested, after analysis, that the Chaconne was based on several church tunes. And that the “arrangement” if you will, was a “tombeau” to Bach’s recently-deceased wife, Maria Barbara.

I was pleased the last track featured the Chaconne by itself.

So what is this singing part?

It’s the overlay of the “tunes” Bach used. It’s a way to hear the original and what Bach was doing underneath. I wondered if this was true? Without access to the article (or ability to read it in German) I can’t speak to the truth behind the idea, but the compelling part of the research showed Bach’s use of numbering with a letter system (which we know from other examples he used) that the number of measures in the Chaconne helps spell “Maria Barbara.” The assumption is that Bach either composed this work after coming home, to find her dead, or else perhaps added the Chaconne to an existign work, as a fitting extra movement as a tribute.

What’s interesting to me, if this is indeed all true, is that Bach left no "evidence" (title, explanation, stories recorded by sons) that he took religious tunes and used them as a “blue print” for material for this music, “embedding” it with religious “essence” if you will, and then specifically considered the piece as a type of reflection on the passing of his wife. None of that is surprising, I guess, however. I often think of my own creative output and how I am motivated to create when there's a real reason to do so. I could see Bach coming home, re-visiting his violin pieces he'd already started, then deciding to compose a final flourish, his soul overwhelmed by the passing of his wife.

There's no smoking gun, per se. If we take French examples of tombeaux, from the likes of a Couperin or a Forqueray, the person for whom the piece was written is named.

And if Bach is using other material, (think of it as old fabric), in the creation of new works (re-used in a quilt) then is this the only example?

Of course not--his output for the church (including organ works) are chock full of examples like this. But in his instrumental pieces? It's interesting.

So, the recording has me thinking. I never purchased the ECM New Series album entitled Morimur but now have ordered it for comparison. According to one reviewer, this recording by the Hilliard Ensemble and Christoph Poppen also references the same musicological study and is evidently a better treatment of approaching the Chaconne with vocal treatment.

So, I’ll have another review of an older recording forthcoming.

But listening to this recording featuring one of my favorite singers, Emma Kirkby, and the countertenor Carlos Mena, I have to admit the piece has grown on me after repeated listenings. The key is, I think, is not hearing it in a “Bachian way,” paying attention to each phrase and sequence of notes, but rather taking a step back, and listening to it, perhaps, as something more modern. I do not believe there was ever in any intent in hearing the music like this by Bach, I am guessing. Perhaps in his head. And that special treat is what’s presented here. The ability to hear the inspiration behind one of Bach’s most profound pieces, one of the humanity’s most profound, surviving pieces of music, giving us an insight none of us likely would have experienced otherwise.

If you can picture yourself walking around in a large cathedral, almost as if a lutenist is tucked in the corner, rehearsing, and then from somewhere else we hear two singers rehearsing, and somehow the two separate pieces of music come together, it locks in and you realize “hearing these two things together is kind of cool, they highlight one another…” that’s the effect. I enjoy it more following the pace of the sung music, and not trying to "hear" the Chaconne underneath, by itself. (Yes, it messes with your mind, the mixture of the unfamiliar and familiar.)

In the end I’m thankful for the result. It’s interesting and like the Chaconne by itself, it’s thought-provoking and reflection-inducing, at least for me. What it’s not, however, is a re-creation of a “lost Bach piece,” but rather an experiment.

The remaining solo work by Moreno is tame in tempo and not terribly overt in nuance but, it’s that rich sound quality that adds value to his performance. It’s an enjoyable listen with Moreno letting the music breathe, and a nice counter to Thile’s more rapid reading.


Corelli Opus 5, featuring Imaginarium Ensemble and Enrico Onofri