Tuesday, 3 November 2020

O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: Music, neuroscience and fear of death in OAE's Bach, the Universe and Everything

Johann Rist
Johann Rist, author of the hymn
use in Bach's Cantata BWV 60

Bach, the Universe and Everything
- Bach Cantata BWV 60 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort'; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Kings Place

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 November 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A vivid performance of Bach's dialogue cantata about fear of death at the centre of this engaging programme

On Sunday 1 November 2020, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Bach, the Universe & Everything series returned to Kings Place with Bach on the Brain: Exploring the Brain Dynamics of Music. Directed from the organ by Steven Devine, the ensemble performed Bach's Cantata BWV 60 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort' with soloists Helen Charlston, Hugo Hymas and Dominic Sedgwick, plus Johann Gottfried Walther's chorale prelude O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, Byrd's motet Beati mundo corde and the 'Allegro' from Johann Georg Pisendel's Sonata in C minor. Professor Morten Kringelbach, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford talked about the neuroscience of music.

We began with an organ chorale prelude,  O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort by Johann Gottfried Walter, a relative of JS Bach's who is known for his Musikalisches Lexicon, one of the first musical reference books written in German. The concerts in this series always follow an established pattern, so the chorale prelude led to a piece of unaccompanied polyphony, William Byrd's Beati mundo corde. A communion motet for All Saints from volume one of Byrd's Gradualia of 1605. Sung without a conductor by the eight voices of the vocal ensemble, this was quite a strong sound, with rather a sculptural feel to the slowly unfolding phrases. 

A reading from The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941) by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts talked about man having never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. The book is a description of a 1940 marine specimen-collecting boat expedition that Steinbeck made with his friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, and is Steinbeck's most important work of non-fiction.

Bach's Cantata BWV 60 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort' was composed for the 24th Sunday after Trinity and was first performed by Bach in Leipzig in 1724 as part of his first cantata cycle. It is a dialogue cantata about fear of death and hope of salvation, with two characters in dialogue - Fear (mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston) and Hope (tenor Hugo Hymas), and towards the end the figure of Christ (baritone Dominic Sedgwick) quoting from the Book of Revelation ('Blessed are the Dead'). The cantata uses two oboes d'amore, strings and continuo and we began with a gorgeous orchestral texture with the two oboes d'amore. The first movement combined a strong chorale for Fear with a more lyrical aria-like response from Hope, with the two eventually intertwining. There was some wonderfully engaging playing, vital and sober yet full of enlivening detail. 

As Fear, Helen Charlston was plangent and intense, contrasting with Hugo Hymas' lyrical flexibility as Hope. The two developed their different characters in the two long recitative dialogues, and in the middle there was a single aria, again a dialogue where Charlston's strong intensity as Fear contrasted with Hyas' more fluid, elaborate lines as Hope. The second recitative, was between Fear and Christ (Dominic Sedgwick), with Christ responding to Hope's trenchant dialogue with lyrical and calming arioso. We ended with the striking Chorale, 'Es ist genug' with its sequence of three whole tones to which Bach added some striking harmony. This was a vividly satisfying account of one of Bach's most fascinating cantatas.

It was perhaps unfortunate that instead of giving his talk live, Professor Kringelbach had had to pre-record it. It was a fascinating topic, how the neuroscience of music is beginning to be able to elucidate how music contributes to the experience of Eudamonia, a life well lived. Or perhaps the topic was simply too big for a ten-minute talk. There seemed to be a great deal of detail that we would have liked to have had elucidated, but it was fascinating how science is beginning to be able to measure and quantify the satisfaction that listening to music brings to the brain!

We ended with an 'Allegro' by another of Bach's contemporaries, the violinist Johann Georg Pisendel (who led the court kapelle in Dresden and was the dedicatee of concertos by Vivaldi). It was a perkily catchy piece which sent us away dancing.

I came rather late to experiencing Bach, the Universe and Everything but it seems to be one of the most satisfying ways to experience Bach's cantatas. That the performance is part of a regular series, gives the sort of quotidien feel to the performance that Bach's must have had, and the inclusion of other elements allows us to think round the issues and ideas, rather than constricting us to listening to a programme of music from Bach's cantatas in the concert hall, wonderful though that might be. 

The performance will be on-line, on OAE Player from 15 November 2020, and the next concert in the series is due on 20 December.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Late Beethoven from the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place - concert review
  • The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice: following his appearance with Blackheath Halls Opera, I chat to tenor Nicky Spence about his career and planning roles  - interview
  • A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC - CD review
  • Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller - CD review
  • More than a curiosity: Malcolm Arnold's forgotten opera The Dancing Master - CD review
  • An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon  - feature article
  • Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate - Cd review
  • Everything via Association: composer Vic Hoyland on his 75th birthday - interview
  • Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC  - CD review
  • From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad  - CD review
  • The case against Wagner - David Faiman's Meyerbeer: The deliberately forgotten composer - book review
  • Home
 


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