AN 2 8907 Back to Bach

Back to Bach

They spoke about it

Album information

This album presents a number of tried and true Baroque favourites on the cello, such as Bach’s “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3, “Bist Du Bei Mir,” as well as some slightly lesser known gems from composers such as Allegri and Corelli, which Ofra Harnoy interprets with the profound musicality and passion she is known for.

In Ofra’s early Baroque recordings, many works were accompanied with organ, chamber orchestra, or harpsichord. For this album, however, rather than revisiting the conventional settings for these works, she has decided to use brass as accompaniment for some works, and, for the works by Telemann and Allegri, has created a cello ensemble through overdubbing and multi-tracking techniques. As much as it is a treat to hear her play this music as soloist, that joy is multiplied in hearing her play each of the nine voices of Allegri’s Miserere.

Using modern technology, this recording gives Ofra Harnoy a whole new way to explore this centuries-old music and present it to listeners exactly as she hears it herself.

© Mike Herriott, producer

Back to Bach: A Celebration of Baroque Music for the Cello

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is so celebrated for the structure of his work – the harmonies, counterpoint, and forms of his pieces – that we sometimes forget just how great he was at writing simple, beautiful melodies, though the ingenious structure is still there under the surface. Three such gems – all of them slow movements taken from larger works – are included here. The second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D major is one of his most recognizable melodies. It is sometimes referred to as the “Air on the G-string” because of a 19th-century arrangement for solo violin. The beautiful melody is exquisitely accompanied by countermelodies in the middle voices and a simple but perfectly constructed bass line that moves almost entirely in alternating ascending and descending octaves. This same device – a “pulsing” bass line – is used to similar effect in the middle movement of the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, originally written for the organ. An equally beautiful second movement (Adagio) is found in Bach’s Concerto for Violin in E major, which Bach also later reworked into a keyboard concerto. Its distinguishing feature is an ostinato figure in the bass line, a pattern that is repeated throughout the piece as a foundation for the beautiful ornamented passages of the solo voice.

“Bist du bei mir” is found in a collection of songs and keyboard works that Bach presented to his second wife, Anna Magdalena, in 1725. Anna Magdalena was an accomplished singer, keyboardist, and copyist; a number of Bach’s compositions survive in her handwriting (such as the suites for solo cello). This collection was the second Notebook for Anna Magdalena, and it contained compositions by both her husband and several other composers. Some of the book was blank when presented to her, so she could add to it: “Bist du bei mir” is one of the songs added in her own hand. It is from the opera Diomedes by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690–1749), a contemporary of Bach’s.

Despite our current universal acknowledgement of Bach’s genius, during his lifetime he was not nearly as renowned; in fact, the position he held at the end of his career, that of Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, almost did not go to Bach – two people turned it down before he was offered the position. First in line for that honour was Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767), a contemporary and friend of Bach. Telemann left us a staggering amount of music in every genre, including a number of pieces meant for pedagogical instruction – the 18 Canons Mélodieux, ou 6 Sonates en Duo, published in 1738, fall into this category. They are grouped into six sonatas of three movements each, and they comprise only a single line of music (one player begins, the other begins after the first has completed one measure). These brilliant little gems of counterpoint were written with two flutes in mind, but Telemann specified right on the title page that they could be played by violins or violes de basse, and they have since been played by just about any pair of equal-registered instruments.

The English publisher John Walsh had a monopoly on the works of George Frederic Handel (1685– 1759) and in 1732 published a set of 12 sonatas for various instruments, including a Sonata in F major for Violin and Keyboard. This later made it into the catalogue of Handel’s works, even though scholars cannot agree on whether Handel actually wrote it. Regardless, its range makes it particu- larly effective as a transcription for the cello.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713) was not a prolific composer; he left only six published sets of 12 sonatas each, and all but one of these sets is for solo violin or a pair of violins plus continuo. Yet he was highly influential in the history and development of both the sonata form and the violin itself (which only took on the form we know today about a century before Corelli’s birth). Bach and Handel both studied his works and reworked some of them into their own compositions. Ofra performs from his fifth published set of sonatas, 12 Sonate a violino e violone o cimbalo.

Miserere mei Deus is the most famous composition of Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652). A hauntingly beautiful setting of Psalm 51 for two antiphonal choirs, it was kept under lock and key at the Sistine Chapel (where Allegri was a chorister) and only performed twice during Holy Week of each year. In a service where mostly plainchant is sung, its full chords have a powerful effect on the listener, as does its ethereal verse sections where the soprano voice floats to a top C above the treble staff. So special was this work to the Papacy that it was under a publication ban (on pain of excommunication!) – that is, until a 14-year-old named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it during his travels and quickly jotted it down after the service.

© Robert Fraser

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Ofra Harnoy
Mike Herriott
AN 2 8907 Back to Bach
AN 2 8907 Back to Bach

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