Christoph Poppen: Morimur (ECM New Series 1765)



Christoph Poppen baroque violin
The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch soprano
David James countertenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded September 2000, Monastery of St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Drawing on the research of musicologist Helga Thoene of the University of Düsseldorf, Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble take great care in juxtaposing the monumental “Ciaccona” from J. S. Bach’s Partita in D Minor BMV 1004 alongside (and against) various Bach chorales, through which cryptic synchronicities are brought audibly to light. These “chorale quotations”—believed by Thoene to comprise a “tombeau” (i.e., epitaph) for Bach’s deceased wife Maria Barbara in the larger context of Christ’s death and resurrection—are transformed here into an entirely new experience that traces the intangible borders between life and death. And indeed, the title of the album, Morimur, connotes “death as a passage to life” and reflects the numerology therein as an equation for transubstantiation. Chorale passages are interspersed between movements of the refracted Partita, thus allowing us insight not only into the hidden connections of violin and voice (insofar as the Ciaccona is concerned), but also into the nearly tangible sinews that hold together the Partita as a whole. Poppen’s violining digs ever deeper into its source, as if overwriting the original manuscript with heavier ink.

This is a very challenging album to encapsulate in one review, for it is a listening experience like no other. With each new turn it offers hitherto unexplored avenues of creation. As a mere listener, it may be easy for me to dismiss the intense scholarship that has gone into this recording and simply enjoy it for the contemplative music it contains. After all, much of what lies hidden between the Ciaccona and its companion chorales is perhaps more obvious to the trained eye on paper than it is to the casual, if not enraptured, ear on disc. At the same time, I cannot help but think that the connections drawn out through its attendant scholarship are vastly important for the sole reason that this program would not exist in its present form without them. That being said, I feel that Bach’s ciphers stimulate the heart without the need for a direct correlation in numbers. In other words, we don’t necessarily require those connections to be spelled out for us as a guidebook to what remains fundamentally communicative.

Music never ceases to amaze and entice with its potential for infinite variation. The intersections drawn in Morimur are omnipresent and need not always be so contrived. Bach’s music, especially as it is rendered here, reminds us that sometimes those transparent bridges between our intellect and the environments around us are also the most fleeting and unexpected. Contrary to what we might expect from a project so described, this is not about solving some age-old code left for only the most astute of posterities. It is, rather, about uncovering those mysteries that never go away and make us who we are: mysteries of faith, of love and absolution, of desire, and of death. Therefore, I see this album not so much as a reflection of Bach’s often-touted genius, but of his humility.

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