Bach/Webern: Ricercar (ECM New Series 1774)


Johann Sebastian Bach
Anton Webern

The Hilliard Ensemble
Monika Mauch
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen
Recorded January 2001, Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, München
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Ricercar Christoph Poppen continues where he left off on Morimur. While the goal of the latter project was to reveal what was hidden, here it is to direct our ears to what is already there. To achieve this Poppen bridges the J. S. Bach divide now to Anton Webern, highlighting an early Bach cantata—“Christ lag in Todesbanden” (Christ lay in the bonds of death)—as a genetic link to Webern’s op. 5 and the String Quartet of 1905, and ultimately to Webern’s own rendering of the six-part ricercar from Das musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering). Herbert Glossner, in his liner notes, analogizes the relationship between the cantata and the ricercar in architectural terms, with the former standing at the center and the latter providing the cornerstones. The structural comparisons are far from arbitrary. They provide key insight into the potential for both composers to interlock in fresh and enlivening (more on this below) ways.

The bookending ricercar does, in fact, support the program like the columns of some aged temple, letting the language therein build from the afterlife of a single oboe line. This weave seems to pull the orchestra from a profound slumber, also drawing from within it deeper threads that unfold rather than obscure their source. This is no mere interpretation, but a bodily dip into Baroque waters. The same can be said of Poppen’s project on the whole: Ricercar is neither trying to modernize Bach nor even to accentuate the timelessness of his music, but rather taking an informed look into the prism of its inception. Paired with the conductor’s variegated arrangement of the 1905 quartet, it pours like the sun through an open curtain. On this side of the spectrum the music has a similarly fugal structure and sits comfortably in its shell, yet also bleeds into the cup of Bach’s fourth cantata. The soaring organ and heavy foliage of strings and voices in the opening movement accentuate the kaleidoscopic effects of all that have fed into it thus far. The assembled forces accelerate into a beautifully syncopated passage that almost rings of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in the allelujas. The cantata’s only duet, here between soprano Monika Mauch and countertenor David James, is a crystal of fine diction (especially in the words, “Das macht…”), as are the respective tenor and baritone solos from Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones. The performances are carefully striated and blossom in the glory of their full inclusion (whereas in Morimur only selections were decidedly offered out of their immediate contexts).

All of this gives us a profound feel for the concept and for the awakening stirrings of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, performed here in the composer’s own expanded version. Not unlike the preceding cantata, it awakens in plush contours into a duet of sorts before regaling us with tutti and solo passages in turn. This constant negotiation between speaker and spoken heightens the music’s physicality and thus its mortal vitality, so that in its throes we think not of death but rather of the life-giving soil in a landscape now heavily traveled. For while it is tempting, of course, to read these works as if they were written on the brittle paper of death, one cannot help but feel the affirmation of survival thrumming through their veins. Each is a universe in fragments waiting to be painted, and the exigencies of our fragile existence its subjects.

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