- The Hilliard Ensemble
- Christoph Poppen
- ECM New Series, (p) 2001
I am glad I had the opportunity to audition De occulta philosophia first, what I might call a “companion” or “sister” album to this one. The CD featuring lutenist José Miguel Moreno offers a musicologically-inspired performance focusing on the Ciaccona from Bach’s second partita for solo violin (BWV 1004). The gist of the recording is this: a musician/professor named Helga Thoene discovers that there is strong evidence that this long, extended piece is related to the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, and Bach borrowed “melodies” from religious pieces to create the material for this piece. And reading about it isn’t enough. We just might need recordings that point all of this out to us, especially for those of us who might not be able to hear music in our heads when we read a score.
No matter if this was ever Bach’s intention for performing this piece, we’re going to do it and hope it works out!
The 22 tracks on this 2001 recording feature the church music in snippets recorded by the vocal ensemble, the Hilliard Ensemble. I like them and I liked their previous collaboration with Poppen featuring the cantata BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden and the Musical Offering's 6-part ricercar. As with the Moreno disc, Poppen, on baroque violin, gives us all five movements of the second partita by itself, but then in the 21st track, he is joined by the Hilliards for another version of the Ciaccona with singing.
In general, the singing is all very well-done. The violin playing isn’t bad, but there were a few times that I thought Poppen didn’t come across as in the same league as say, John Holloway, who would several years later record all of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in the same monastery. Or Rachel Podger. Or Helène Schmitt. A few phrases and their articulation seemed rushed or “thrown away,” and a few times intonation was suspect. I’d read some seriously critical remarks but also positive ones about his playing through several online reviews. In the end, I think there are better readings alone on baroque violin, but the performance alone without voices was still good.
The recording of the Ciaccona on track 20 actually starts with Den Tod from Christ lag in Todesbanden. Then the violin enters, and then there’s that weird feeling again, with slow-ish singing with a faster-moving piece underneath.
I am quite certain, and it’s just a hunch, that Bach never would have ever performed this piece like this. Forget Bach. No one in the baroque period would have heard this. Or in the guise as presented by Moreno. The good thing about this performance is that Poppen is pushing the Chaconne at a faster pace than Moreno did, which makes the singing on top more palatable. But sung fragments, by different voices, coming in at different places, is all just too modern a sound for me… of course, this is ECM New Series. And the Hilliard Ensemble, who isn't afraid of modernity. Maybe it’s not so much about the sounding for us the musicological illustration, and more about creating a “new fangled” type of Bach music.
I only find this interesting, to be honest, played more as background music, again without the expectation for hearing “the great solo violin chaconne.” Much in the same vein, perhaps, as vocal pieces on Officium, the original collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek, some quasi-Renaissance jazz. I liked the recording, and I believe there’s a place for hearing music out of context. It’s akin to seeing a Jasper Johns painting referencing the Mona Lisa or something by Munch. Let’s juxtapose old and new and take in what these two time-placed things do to us, how they mess with us, and make new art.
This is different. This is not Jan Garbarek improvising over Bach. I think with Bach’s stature, that could be seen as dangerous. Instead, it’s Bach and Bach.
It’s less successful than Officium, I think. Yet, it has seemed to sell well.
Frankly, I’d like to say it’s trash. It’s just a shame the singing is so good and the violin playing isn’t bad either. This is an album for someone who wants a new-age approach to Bach or else is a musicology professor and will reference the research with this recording in class.
In the next volume, I’ve found yet another musician who wants to reference this same research in his recording.