A Gertus History of Music’s Top 25* Albums of 2022

The death of good music has been greatly exaggerated. Over the last year, just like in every year in recent memory, artists (and, it must be said, particularly young artists) have released so many stunning albums that keeping up with contemporary music is a practical impossibility. The following is thus an imperfect and very incomplete list of 25 (plus 1) of my favorite albums released in the last year. They are presented in no particular order.

What happens when one of the world’s greatest pianists meets one of his composer-idols? He records a very personal double album, which presents many of György Kurtág’s compositions along with more familiar offerings. Reportedly based on pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s childhood memories, he recorded both on grand and uprights pianos. This album is a fascinating study–one of many in Ólafsson’s discography–that explores musical connections across centuries.

Vikingur Ólafsson, From Afar

French composer Olivier Messiaen is one of my favorite composers of the 20th century and his brilliant Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) has been woefully neglected on record if not in performance. The roughy two-hour cycle, played without break, is taxing on both performer and audience alike. But perserverence is richly rewarded, especially with this crystal-clear recording of Bertrand Chamayou’s performance. To my ears, Bertrand comes closest to unlocking the metaphysical truths about Messiaen’s faith that are embedded in this work.

Bertrand Chamayou, Messiaen: Vignt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

An important new recording of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 is reason enough the celebrate–it is in my opinion easily among the Top 20 compositions of all time, across all genres. Here, this titanic work–a quartet of truly symphonic pretensions–is paired with Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3, one of the composer’s most accessible works, and Silvestrov’s Quartet No. 1, which was, for me, a new work to discover. All three composers toiled under the most extreme circumstances, distrusted by their governments and, at least in Shostakovich’s case, fearful for their lives. Their struggle–reflected in the album’s title–is very much reflected in the Matangi Quartet’s performance.

Matangi Quartet, Outcast

In 2016, my wife returned from the Northeastern Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions–the most important singing competition in the opera world–and claimed to have heard “the next best thing.” If I was intrigued at first–I was postively floored when she reported that the singer in question was a countertenor. And if that wasn’t enough of a shock, she then reported that he was a “champion breakdancer from Poland.” I had the pleasure of hearing Jakub sing at the finals some months later (which he won) and had to agree–my wife was absolutely correct. Since that time, I’ve heard Jakub sing the title role in Jonathan Dove’s Flight at Julliard and Orpheus’ Shadow in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s been awarded Singer of the Year awards and nominated for a Grammy. And that’s before he released this, his best album to date. A personal account of Polish art songs, Jakub effortlessly bridges the gulf between genres.

Jakub Józef Orliński & Michal Biel, Farewells

What if a vampire performed Bach? The lights would be dimmed, everything would be black and, as an immortal, the vampire would surely take his time. Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau may not be a vampire, but anyone lucky enough to catch him in concert might be excused for thinking otherwise. Slowing tempos to the extremes is not usually my jam, as it were, but I find myself returning to Rondeau’s bewitching recording more and more. Now, where’s that garlic?

Jean Rondeau, Bach: Goldberg Variations

Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez wrote history’s first hit, thanks the invention of the printing press. That hit, like so much of Josquin’s music, is deeply religious in nature. Presented here is the other side of Josquin, a collection of secular songs, mostly from his years in France. Evocative and transporting in equal measure.

Doulce Mémoire & Denis Raisin Dadre, Josquin Desprez: Tant vous aime

This next album just might be my favorite of the year. Thanks to Alex Ross for suggesting it. But what exactly is this? The music, for me, completely defies classification. On its face, it is a collection of duets composed by soprano Jane Sheldon based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1905 Book of Hours. Sheldon, who sings both parts, draws on influences from Hildegard von Bingen (who Sheldon cites) to Björk (who she does not). But genre? Who cares. Timeless, stunning, and absolutely magical.

Jane Sheldon, I am a tree, I am a mouth

If you were to design the dream opera star, he would be a tenor and look like a matinee idol. Enter Jonathan Tetelman. Here is his debut album. Watch. This. Space.

Jonathan Tetelman, Arias

I spent a good chunk of 2022 writing about composers who died too young, Mozart and Schubert first and foremost among them. By comparison, we have been truly blessed by the longevity and productivity of many of the greatest contemporary composers, including Steve Reich. This new album from the LA Philharmonic presents two of Reich’s most recent compositions–the first time either has been recorded. Like all of Reich’s music, the more you listen, the more that emerges as the strands that comprise Reich’s finely wrought textures become more apparent and the emotional coloration becomes more familiar. Hypnotic stuff.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Steve Reich: Runner/Music for Ensemble and Orchestra

Nothing is more boring–or more unnecessary–than another album of classical war horses with nothing new to say. Fortunately, the low cost of digitial production has allowed artists unprecedented freedom to explore soundscapes of thier own creation. On her most recent album, soprano Ruby Hughes covers nearly 500 years of music history, from the works of Purcell through a raft of contemporary British composers, including the titular song-cycle Echo, which was written for her. A strong contender for album of the year.

Ruby Hughes & Huw Watkins, Echo

Hilgegard von Bingen on electric guitar? I’m in. Sean Shibe continues to turn out thoughtful albums that shed new light on the classical repertorie.

Sean Shibe, Lost & Found

Did we need another recording of L’Estro Armonico? No. But the Concerto Italiano’s performance is such infectious fun that it easily finds its way onto this list.

Rinaldo Alessandrini & Concerto Italiano, Vivaldi/Bach

Clarinetist Pablo Barragán and pianist Sophie Pacini present a refined album of works (largely) composed during WWII, each of which pushes the boundaries of the “classical” genre.

Pablo Barragán & Sophie Pacini, Boundless

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is best know for his many film scores, but his posthumously released Drone Mass reveals a serious composer who had much more to say before his untimely death at 48. Drawing upon both Rennaisance polyphony and the spectral silences of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Jóhannsson layers in electronica to create a soundscape that is uniquely his own.

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Drone Mass

“Classical singer” Julia Bullock’s debut album is a showstopper. Possessed of a velvety, voluptuous sound, I could listen to Bullock sing the phone book. Thankfully, I don’t have to. On Walking in the Dark, Bullock selects music from across the spectrum, from Samuel Barber and John Adams to Billy Taylor and Connie Converse, finding the connective tissue that unites them all. The standout track is, unsurprisingly, Adams’ Memorial de Tlateloico from his El Niño oratorio–Bullock is a seasoned Adams peformer on the operatic stage. The album closes with Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Taking on a Nina Simone classic is the epitome of bravery and Bullock’s version is, at least for me, even more haunting and personal than Miss Simone’s. An instant classic that has found its way onto several of my playlists. More of this please!

Julia Bullock & Christian Reif, Walking in the Dark

Another contender for album of the year is Mari Samuelsen’s LYS, which is comprised of several short compositions that take us into a luminous soundscape rendolent of Philip Glass. The album contains arrangments of works by such diverse composers as the 12th century mystic and saint, Hildegard von Bingen, and modern day savant and goddess, Beyoncé, along with works by contemporary composers Caroline Shaw, Lera Auerbach and others. As the world turns dark, this album dares to let the light in.

Mari Samuelsen, LYS

Diverse voices are finally elbowing their way to center stage in contemporary music. Leading that charge is composer Nico Muhly, whose Two Boys created a sensation several years ago in the operatic world. Drawing from a variety of texts, Muhly’s song cycle Stranger is a haunting and moving presentation of the perspective of those at the fringes of society. Written for tenor Nicholas Phan, who sings with a uniquely tender vulnerability, and as supported by the brilliant Brooklyn Rider quartet, Muhly is revealed as the greatest songwriter of his age. In particular, Muhly’s setting of Lorne Ys My Liking, a 15th century Chester Mystery Play, stakes his claim as the true heir of Benjamin Britten.

Nicholas Phan, Stranger

Cellest Inabel Segev presents an album of 20 compositions completed during the pandemic year. The standout track here is Bruce Wolosoff’s Lacrymae for Cello Choir, which like all great music, will be eternally contemporary.

Inabel Segev: 20 for 2020 (2022 edition)

Back in 1994, I bought a CD from a new hot tenor sax player and was simply blown away. Heavily influenced by classic jazz, Joshua Redman’s debute with his quartet of up and coming stars showcased how the language of the past could be updated for the present. Having gone their separate ways, the quartet reunited two years ago. LongGone is their second reunion album. Fittingly, the best track on the new album is the nearly 13-minute long jam on Redman’s Rejoice. Rejoice indeed. This is jazz at its most essential.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, LongGone

It says something that in a year when Joshua Redman releases a fantastic album with his great quartet, that my favorite jazz album of the year was made by fellow tenor saxist JD Allen. Over 45 terse minutes, Allen meditates on the roots of American music, moving seemlessly in and out of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and R&B. This is one to listen to with a good bottle of bourbon late in the night. Guitarist Charlie Hunter brings that extra special sauce to the group, but it is Rudy Royston’s drumming that stands out as the spine of the group. A tour de force that I have only begun to unpack.

JD Allen, Americana Vol. 2

caroline’s debut album defies classification and, frankly, I’m not sure what to make of it–only that I want to listen to it over and over again. Drawing from a wide array of influences–I hear Midwestern folk, 80s emo, the Velvet Underground, and a lot of Philip Glass–the eight musicians that comprise caroline weave a hypnotic spell over the listener. What is especially refreshing is the calculated casualness of the performance, which gives the music room to breath. The Beach Boys once sang “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” That’s sort of how I feel about this album–once you enter caroline’s world, the band takes you to far off and wonderful places.

caroline, caroline

Björk describes her tenth album as fungal funk. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. But trying to make sense of Björk or her music has never really been the point. Simply put, Björk is the most interesting artist in the pop genre and her albums are always a ton of fun. Fossora is no exception. A fun house of sound, Plant Björk is always a joy to visit.

Björk, Fossora

What happens when two members of Radiohead go off to make an album with a different drummer? You get an album that sounds a whole lot like Radiohead. And that surely is a good thing. If John, Paul and George had gone off to make a record with Ginger Baker, would anyone have complained? Me neither. And, yet, surprises lurk here. First, and foremost, is the question of how any band fronted by Thom Yorke is called “The Smile”? Has rock great’s depressive found the silver lining? Not so much, as the lyrics attest. This is a false smile–someone assuring you that everything is fine when, in reality, we are all screwed. But if that mystery is solved, how do we explain Free in the Knowledge–a drop dead gorgeous ballad that is the worthy heir to Fake Plastic Trees, which is both my favorite Radiohead song and one that Thom Yorke has specifically disclaimed. Perhaps the answer lies in the final song, Skirting on the Surface, which closes with the utterly depressing summary of the state of the world in 2022: When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends, We can drop under the surface.

The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention

Spoon is one of my favorite bands and its 10th album is one of its strongest. There is no mistaking the Spoon sound, it is as unique and timeless as REM’s. Unlike REM, however, Spoon has multiple modes, depending on how much bass and other electronica creep into the track. But at its core, Spoon is Britt Daniel’s vocals backed by guitar, piano and a steady beat. One part funk, one part rock and one part folk–mix and stir to perefection. Start with Wild, as infectous a song as Spoon has ever turned out. And that is saying something.

Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa

I really can’t explain how I went a decade without being aware of this band. It certainly isn’t their fault, having released a staggering 21 albums over the last decade. But I am thankful to the West Coast Physicist for turning me on to this incredible band. Laminated Denim, true to form, is the seecond a three albums released this fall. The album is equally divided across two 15-minute tracks. With its DNA rooted in pyschedelic rock, jam bands, progressive rock, among others, this album will no doubt feature on the next lazy sunny day out back.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Laminated Denim

The Professor was downright giddy to take me to my first Porcupine Tree concert. The brainchild of songwriter/singer/guitarist/sound engineer Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree occupies the relatively sparse ground at the intersection of metal and progressive rock. Loud, rhythmically complex, and largely atonal, Porcupine Tree’s recent music is a tough sell. But buried within those disonnances and thundering rhythms lie something nearly mystical that transcends the narrow label of progressive metal. And that’s reason enough to stretch a Top 25 list by one.

Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation

BONUS: While Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were recording as The Smile, Radiohead’s drummer was off making his second solo album. If the first song off that album (the full album is to be released in February 2023) is any indication, it is going to be a cracker.

Philip Selway, Check for Signs of Life

The Friday Symposium: Bach and The Martini

Leave it to academia to turn something wonderful into something dreadful. When most people hear the world “symposium” today, they think of a bunch of talking heads sitting on a podium massaging their own egos. In the Ancient World, however, a symposium was decidedly more fun–after all, the word symposium is derived from the Greek “symposio”, which means “drinking together.” A symposium, in Ancient Rome, was therefore a drinking party where wine and music flowed together. So when Our Friend from Boston requested a paring of music and drinks in this blog, my mind turned to the original meaning of symposium. I will also note that this idea was in part stolen from The Friday Belt, which was one of the best features of what was probably my favorite blog ever.

The first drink, of course, has to be the Martini. It is one of the first and one of the best, an icon that is bracingly refreshing in summer as it is the literal representation of winter in a glass. No drink brings as much history and atmospherics to the table. And once you know how to make one, the riffs on the formula are nearly endless.

Let’s start with what a Martini is not. It is not made with vodka. It is not simply chilled gin in a glass. It is a cocktail and thus made from a combination of ingredients, one of which is dry vermouth. I love vermouth and take my “dry Martinis” quite wet by modern standards. Julia Child was fond of the Reverse Martini (two parts vermouth to one part gin). Audrey Saunders brought back the Fifty-Fifty Martini. But the classic is and will always be three parts gin to one part vermouth, which is what I drink. Finally, a Martini, like every cocktail that is made solely from spirits, should stirred, not shaken. There is little more depressing in life than ordering a Martini and getting ice chips floating at the top of the glass. In this regard, this classic scene from The Thin Man (first scene in the montage), was complely wrong. Incidentally, the glass used by Nick Charles in these films is now known as the Nick and Nora glass, which is as an ideal vessel for a Martini and nearly any other variation of it.

A Martini, like most cocktails, should be small, no more than four ounces total. Bars love these swimming pool masquerading as cocktail glasses, but really that is just a vehicle for a warm drink. A Martini should be silky smooth in texture, bracing in flavor, and icy cold in temperature. A perfectly made Martini is a thing of beauty; a poorly made Martini is the cocktail served in hell.

Today’s Martini drinker is faced with an endless set of gin and vermouth combinations. The classic, Beefeater and Martini & Rossi, is a classic for a reason. A more upscale version, The Botanist and Channing Daughters VerVino Variation 1, amps up the flavor considerably. For those who do not like juniper-flavored gins, Plymouth and Perucchi Bianco make for a nice pairing. As for the other more popular premium gins, I do not like Tanqueray in a Martini (a G&T is an entirely different story) and I do not like Bombay, either in its original or sapphire versions, altogether. My favorite is decidely middle of the road: Broker’s and Dolin Dry. Three to one, stirred, with a dash of orange bitters and olives thank you very much. Both will make less of a dent in your wallet than any of the others mentioned here.

Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin are similarly bracing, brilliant when perfectly executed and unlistenable when they are not. Today’s recording is Nathan Milstein’s. His performance is cold perfection of technique, the heat of which only emerges after you’ve had a few.

The classic “Dry” Martini is not, however, the original version. It is, in fact, a riff on the original recipie–The Martinez. The Martinez is made with equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, to which a teaspon of maraschino liqueur and a few dashes of orange bitters are added before stirring into a coupe garnished with a twist of lemon. It is altogether a solid drink, even if the Dry version we know today was a clear improvement.

Just like the hipster bartenders who have resurrected the Martinez, period instrument performers have sought to improve on Milstein’s classic recording, bringing historically informed instruments, bows, and techniques to the table, all in an effort to get closer to Bach’s ideal. Like these recreated Old Tom gins, period instrument recordings of Bach’s sonatas and partitas are interesting but can’t really match Milstein’s peerless classic. But both the drink and these new recordings have their fans. Thomas Zehetmair, in his more recent recording of these works, gets closer to that ideal than most. Perhaps a Martinez for that one.

Searching for Truth: The Conversations

It was the Moonlight Sonata that started my obsession with musical Conversations. And no, it wasn’t the Mozart link described in the prior entry.

It is easy to find how Beethoven influenced subsequent composers. You can jump only a few decades forward to Frederic Chopin, for example:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 in C# Minor, “Moonlight”:

Frederic Chopin, Fantaisie Impromptu in C# Minor, Op. 66 

Dedicated to Beethoven, Chopin’s composition (also in C# Minor) opens with a direct quote from the Moonlight’s opening, before moving on to examine a similar soundscape.

And it is exactly that soundscape that so captures me. As I noted the last time, some of my earliest memories are of my father playing the Moonlight Sonata, and like many childhood memories, that soundscape paints a world that takes me back to the innocence of youth. It is catnip for me–and I have searched for and found that soundscape elsewhere throughout music history. I won’t claim any formal connection between any of these works (I’ve selected different works by Mozart and Chopin, for example). But for me, here are some of the greatest composers in history scratching at an essential truth.

Much like the descendents of Babel, these composers speak to me in different tongues, but are each saying the same essential truth. I wish I knew what that was.

Playlist: Searching for Musical Truth

A Bonus Conversation:

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, like so much of what he wrote, seems to exist out of time. There will be more examples to come, but Alicia Keys makes that case effortlessly on the very first track of her debut album. From 2001:

A Conversation Without End

Bach is the beginning and end of all music.

Max Reger

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Bach is a colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.

Charles Gounod

As difficult as it was to do justice to the works of J.S. Bach in these pages, so too is it difficult to even scratch the surface of his monumental legacy. Bach did more than take the Baroque Period to the grave with him; his influence is ubiquitous in all music that follows. His legacy is everywhere, omnipresent, even if we don’t always recognize it. Mozart studied his scores; so too did Beethoven (a MAJOR Conversation to come). His music was a profound influence on Debussy and Schoenberg and, through them, his influence was amplified through jazz, pop, and the formal music of today.

This blog cannot begin to reckon with such a legacy. Instead, I have compiled a playlist that tries to show, in a limited and incomplete way, how Bach’s music remains with us, right up to that hit song from the other day.

Credo in unum Deum

The gnawing fear I have about trying to sum up the life’s work of history’s most important composers is the certainty that I have left something very important out. But, at least with Bach, I have no such concerns because up today is Bach’s titanic Mass in B minor. I am not even going to attempt to analyze this music (or the numerology puzzles hidden in the Credo section). If you are interested in learning more, this is a great place to start your study: https://ahistoryofmusic.files.wordpress.com/2022/05/6c560-bachmassinbminorguide.pdf.

Bach wrote a lot of spiritual music for the church and every one of the great oratorios presented previously was done so on commission from a church (or church leader) or otherwise in hopes of securing a position with a church (or church leader). In contrast, the Mass in B minor was written for posterity, that is, for us. Largely unknown to audiences for generations, the B Minor Mass was finally published in 1845. Until then, it existed only as rumor–the greatest work by the greatest composer ever to live. Beethoven searched in vain for a copy, dying long before its eventual publication. Part of the reason for it remaining in obscurity for nearly 100 years after its completion is likely the monumental length, which makes the B Minor Mass makes it unsuitable for actual liturgical use, either in a Lutheran or Roman Catholic setting.

So why would such a deeply religious man like Bach write a mass that was unsuited for liturgical purposes? Bach was, I think, getting at something deeper here–the unification of his religious and musical creeds. In the B Minor Mass, Bach sums up music history to date, seamlessly combining forms, techniques and musical sensibilities from across the ages, all wrapped up in the absolute apex of Baroque sound. Bach also recycles many of his best known themes here, reworking them in new ways. For example, the opening of the Kyrie section recalls the opening of the St. John Passion, discussed here a few weeks ago, while the final Kyrie harkens back to Renaissance polyphony. Bach studied Palestrina’s scores and you can hear the old Roman master’s voice echoing through Bach at various points in the B Minor Mass, distilled and amplified through Baroque instrumental counterpoint. But the source material is largely Bach himself. Much of the Sanctus comes from the Christmas Oratorio, while the Agnus Dei recalls part of the Ascention Oratorio. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor and the Contrapunctus X from The Art of the Fugue also make appearances here. I’m sure there are many others.

In the B Minor Mass, Bach fuses academic musicology, devoute Lutheran faith, and glorious sound. You might say that we really didn’t need to listen to anything that came before—ab uno disce omnes. This is the ultimate Conversation–Bach, having a conversation with himself and so many of the great composers that predated him. For me, the B Minor Mass is the greatest single work of music ever composed. It is more that simply one of my Desert Island Discs: It is the whole Island.

I can think of no better way to spend the better part of two hours than listening to Bach’s ultimate summation work. The finale of the mass, a prayer for peace—Dona nobis pacem—was among the last things Bach ever composed. It is so absolutely and completely perfect—I like to imagine that Bach simply laid down is quill and called it a day on this Earth. And, in fact, that’s exactly where I will leave Bach after 12 weeks here, taking his body, mind, and the entire Baroque Period to the grave.

Credo in unum Deum.

J.S. Bach, Mass in B minor:

Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Part I

One thing is certain.  Even if few truly appreciated it at the time, Bach was very aware of his genius.  A humble Lutheran by nature and faith, Bach sought to cement his legacy at the end of his life through two monumental works.  Sick, going blind and dying, Bach set about to compose on both a small and massive scale.  In the Art of the Fugue, Bach delivers the ultimate summation on musical theory to date.  Included in this set of compositions are the most intricate, detailed and complex music ever written.  It’s as if Bach threw down his gauntlet, exclaiming “Decipher this!” 

Bach did not specify which instruments should perform these fugues and instrumentation varies widely in recorded versions.  I’ve selected a few here, but they are all worth careful listening and consideration, across multiple recordings.  These may not be among my truly favorite works of music, but they’d be on my Desert Island Discs for sure—I’d never, ever tire of hearing them.  For this first entry, I’ve selected two, the Eleventh and Seventh.  The Eleventh is perhaps the most complex fugue ever written.  Again, we have the familiar three subjects, which were taken from the Eighth. But, here, each of them is inverted and combined.  In the Seventh, the themes are so dense I can barely figure out what’s going on.  This is where my ear reaches a wall I cannot pass. As I said several weeks ago, Bach brought me to my knees musically, delivering a humbling realization that what mattered most to me was beyond my ability. Here, over 30 years later, he compounds that lesson. Every entry is in stretto—so each subject is imitated before it has even finished.  I hear chords in this that are so new for the period they seem to anticipate jazz.  And . . . that’s about all I can explain.  Bach continues to elude me after all these years—what was that Einstein quote again?

J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue

Contrapunctus XI (harpsichord):

Contrapunctus XI:

Contrapunctus VII (harpsichord):

Contrapunctus VII (brass quartet):  

Bach’s St. John Passion

In 1724, Bach unleashed his St. John Passion on Good Friday. Solemn music for the most solemn day in the Christian calendar. While Lutheran congregations would have expected an austere service, with a handful of Lutheran hymns, Bach had something new up his sleeve. As John Eliot Gardiner observes: “What greeted worshippers that day, however, was music of overwhelming descriptive and emotional power that would surely have shattered their perception of music itself.” More raw and unpolished than the St. Matthew Passion, which featured in this blog earlier in the week, this is for me the ultimate music for Easter. Goosebumps, right from the opening, Bach doesn’t relent during this two hour tour de force, an emotional rollercoaster for the ages. Fear, empathy, sorrow, despair, and, finally, transcendence.

Melt, my heart, in floods of tears.

J.S. Bach, St. John Passion:

John Eliot Gardiner and his frequent collaborators, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, recently released a new and remarkable recording of the St. John Passion. Recorded live at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, during the height of the pandemic and with a socially distanced choir and soloists, the sound engineering of the recording replicates what must have been a truly enveloping sound on the day.

From Gardiner’s liner notes: “The incredible force and beauty of Bach’s music creates an extraordinary effect, a huge impact, and it offered us a chance to aspire to something much bigger than us and beyond us–the divine.”

Bach for Easter

Last Christmas, I published a playlist that looked at Christmas music over nearly 1,000 years. At Easter, it is all about Bach.

As mentioned earlier, Bach’s faith ran deep; while his great and frequent personal tragedies were never worn on his sleeve or visage, they poured out of him and into his music. The St. Matthew Passion is the second of his two Passion settings (his first, the St John Passion will feature later this week).

Here, Bach lets fly his full genius and grief: The flutes used to express the anguish of the apostles at Jesus’ revelation of his impending death (Buss un Reu), the relentless repeating savage diminished chords to symbolize the strokes of the lash during the Scourging (Erbarm es, Gott), and the anguished salvation of its finale (Wur setzen uns mit Tränen nieder).

It’s a brilliant work, which began developing the advanced harmonics of the Romantic Period. No wonder Mendelssohn and Schumann tirelessly promoted Bach’s music. And if the man’s opinion matters, Bach considered this to be his best.

In the comments to the video, you can find links to jump to the sections referenced, but the entire oratorio is worth a few hours of your time. Here is Bach approaching his zenith as a composer, melding religious and personal sorrow and loss into music like no one before or since.

J.S. Bach, St Matthew Passion:

A Light in the Darkness: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, composed towards the end of Bach’s life, are one of his “summation” works. In these works, and here on a single instrument no less, he presents the entire history of music, synthesizing diverse styles from Italian Aria to French Overture. Depending on how many of the repeats are taken, a performance can last upwards of eighty minutes. This is peak Bach, equal parts mathematical precision and human emotion fused as one. When they were published in 1741, Bach remarked that they were “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.” That’s just about right.

So, what makes the Goldberg Variations so special? They are, after all, 80 minutes of harpsichord largely in the key of G major. The same harmonies repeat over and over again, leading at least one critic jokingly to call the Goldberg Variations a monument to monotony. Yet within this deceptively simple compositional framework, Bach’s genius shines through. The theme is symetrically spaced, with 32 bars of the theme, replicated by the 30 variations plus the two framing themes. The fundamental bass is also 32 bars long. Variation 15, the halfway point, is the first of only three composed in minor key closes out the first set in melancholy fashion, only to be immediately reset by Variation 16, composed in grand French Overture style. Every note is exactly where it should be according to mathemtical precision. And yet this isn’t music composed by an unfeeling computer. Bach’s inherent joy comes spilling out of the music, lifting up both performer and audience alike.

The Goldberg Variations are grouped into ten sets of three variations, with each third variation written as a canon (i.e., a round like Row, Row, Row Your Boat). Adding to the complexity, each successive cannon sets the voices at progressively wider intervals. Trying to follow the themes in these is like trying to run through a maze at top speed—you keep hitting dead ends and completely losing your way.

The final variation is a “quodlibet”–an improvisation in which multiple songs are combined. The Bach family was fond of this sort of musical game and I like to think that Bach is saying here that this was, for him, his greatest joy in life: making music with those he loved.

This is truly the music of joy.

J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations

On harpsichord:

Glenn Gould made two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations, one in 1955 at the start of his career and the second in 1981, just before his untimely death. Both are remarkable, but given the choice, I prefer the 1981 version when Gould have fully realized his interpretation of Bach. Both versions are presented here.

Bach and Equal Temperament

Bach’s influence on keyboard instruments is unrivaled.  But before getting into his works for solo keyboard, it is important to talk about Equal Temperament, which solved for all time the problem of the Pythagorean Comma, which we discussed at the beginning of this blog.  To recap, Western music was based on a natural scale with each successive note having a 2/3 relationship to the next.  But the spacing between each note was slightly off, and increasingly so as you went up the scale.  By the time you got to the next octave, the pitch was noticeably off.  The historical compromise had been to discard 5 of the 12 tones.  To use more tones, composers developed keys—but each key required a unique tuning.  So switching between keys became difficult, if not impossible in many cases.  Equal temperament was developed to enable instruments to play in all keys in a single, uniform, tuning.  To do so required music to make a fundamental shift from nature—correcting the Pythagorean Comma so that each note was the exact same distance from the next changed the fundamental mathematics that linked music to the natural world of sound.  As Howard Goodell is fond of saying, due to Equal Temperment, every note you hear today is a monstrous lie.  Here, again, is the math:  https://pages.mtu.edu/~suits/scales.html

Bach wrote the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Klavier to prove that a single keyboard could play all the tones in each key without being re-tuned.  Bach did not write this to perform; he may not even have written it for teaching his students.  It is just possible that Bach wrote this as the proof of Equal Temperament.  But, oh, what a proof!  The reclusive pianist Glenn Gould brought the Well-Tempered Klavier into the concert hall and his recording of them became one of the true landmarks of recorded music.  Along with his classic recording of the Goldberg Variations, Gould is the modern master of Bach.  Only one problem—these pieces were not composed for the piano.

In Bach’s day, the dominant form of keyboard was the harpsichord, where strings are plucked rather than struck.  Harpsichords, however beautiful, cannot vary their volume.  Every note, no matter how forcefully struck, will be just as loud as any other.  As noted earlier in this blog, a harpsichord maker had invented a keyboard that could play both softly (piano, in Italian) and loudly (forte, in Italian).  So was born the “fortepiano”, the forerunner of our modern piano. 

These new fortepianos made their way to Germany and, naturally, one was presented to Bach.  If they were looking for an endorsement, however, they went away disappointed.  Bach was not impressed.  Thus, to really understand these pieces, you must hear them on the harpsichord.  Here, we have the Kenneth Gilbert recording, who plays a harpsichord from 1671!  From the very lengthy set across two books, I have selected Fugue No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor from the first book.  This fugue has the familiar three subjects, one inverted.  An inverted subject “retains the rhythm and the basic contour of the material, but flips it upside down: where the original moves up, the inversion moves down just as down changes to up.” It is a mirror image of the original.  There is no break in this fugue as the subjects gather one on top of the other.  It is a brilliant composition. I’ve also chosen the B minor Fugue from the first book.  It is particularly notable as the subject uses all twelve notes in the chromatic scale.  I’ve been looking for the earliest example of this, but I believe this is the first time that feat was achieved.  Conversation alert for the 20th century.

J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Klavier

Book 1, Fugue No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor (on harpsichord):

Book 1, Fugue No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor (on piano):

Book 1, Fugue No. 24 in B Minor (on harpsichord): 

Book 1, Fugue No. 24 in B Minor (on piano):

Baroque Music XII: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach is Bach, as God is God.” Hector Berlioz

I had no idea of the historical evolution of music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.” Niccolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Study Bach. There you will find everything.” Johannes Brahms

And if we look at the works of JS Bach — a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity — on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered.” Claude Debussy

This is what I have to say about Bach – listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.” Albert Einstein

Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest composer of all time: His unparalleled gift for composition has never been equaled.  His influence on musical history unrivaled.  I can no more heap any greater superlatives on his legacy as explain, really, what is going on in his music.  So, at the great risk of embarrassing myself, I will try to do so through his music and biography. We will take our time here, so great is Bach’s legacy. It will take the best part of 12 weeks to work through his music. And even then, we will have only scratched the surface.

First, a few facts about Bach.  He was primarily known during his lifetime as a virtuoso organist.  Travel around Northern Germany and you will find several churches that are primarily famous for housing organs played by Bach.  He was decidedly less famous than his two compatriots Telemann and Handel, partly because Telemann and Handel traveled widely and also, I suspect, because they composed operas—the most popular music of the day.  There is also the fact that Bach’s music is difficult.  Difficult to play; difficult to understand.  Even the greatest composers and musicians say that they discover something new about nearly every Bach composition each time they play, hear or study it.  They are puzzles within puzzles, constantly referencing what came before, buried within successive layers of harmony.

The touchstone for understanding Bach is, I think, his personal narrative.  His Lutheran faith was very, very real.  Which is not to say that he did not struggle with his faith—he did, and that struggle is evident in much of his religious music.  Part of that struggle was due to his personal tragedies, of which there are almost too many to count.  If the most awful thing in the world is to bury your child, Bach suffered that particular fate too many times.  To top it off, the love of his life, his first wife, died young.  But despite all of that, the anecdotes of the man himself recall a Bob Cratchit-type.  Outwardly jovial, generous to a fault, and always spreading good cheer.  That too comes out in his music.  As one musician said of Bach:

Here is a man who was orphaned by the age of 10, who lost 11 of his 20 kids in infancy or childbirth, whose first wife and love of his life died suddenly.  So there’s Bach, drenched in grief, sleeping with groupies in the organ loft; a dueling, fighting, hard-drinking rock star with a work ethic that makes Obama look like a bum and producing music that still, 300 years later, inspires, stuns and rockets us into a fourth dimension of existence.

Bach composed some 1,100 works in his day—enough to fill several books.  So where to begin here?  No composer has presented such a challenge and I do not expect another to do so likewise.  This brief overview cannot begin to delve into the depths or breath of the Bach repertoire.  So what I have chosen to do is to divide his music into three sections: music for unaccompanied solo instruments, larger scale compositions, and late works.  I hope there is reason to this organization.

In college, I held the view that Bach’s Cello Suites were the greatest compositions of all time.  Unsurprisingly, this view is held by pretty much every cellist I’ve ever met.  I am not a cellist, but I likely held that view because I tried and failed to do justice to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin.  And, of course, there are the two sets of truly revolutionary music for keyboard—The Well-Tempered Klavier and the Goldberg Variations.  I will have a lot more to say about them in a bit.  But, first up, the Violin Sonatas and Partitas.  Every violinist worth his salt has recorded these, but time and time again I return to Nathan Milstein’s landmark recording .  Milstein was the last of the great Russians who had escaped communism to settle in the West.  For this reason, I was fortunate to have seen him perform a few times towards the end of his career (and have a signed program as proof).  By 1970, Heifetz had stopped performing and Oistrakh had tragically died.  But Milstein soldiered on.  Some derided his playing as cold and overly analytical.  I disagree.  Absolutely stoic in performance, what he lacked in personality on stage was made up for in spades in his playing—sheer perfection itself.  I’ve attached a link to the complete recordings, but also to two in particular that warrant attention.  Amazingly, the second is an interview with Milstein followed by a performance when he was 82 and hardly at the peak of his powers.  Incredible.

Bach transcends the forms of his day to give us a meditation on existential agony.  I crashed my bow across these pieces to my own agony of not being remotely talented enough to do them justice.  It is Bach’s uncompromising demand for technical excellence that, in the end, caused me to reflect on the lunacy of pursuing a career in music and led me to Duke University and, ultimately, a career in law.  So you all can thank or blame Bach as the case may be.

J.S. Bach, Violin Sonatas and Partitas (complete):

Sonata No. 1 in G Minor:

Partita in D Minor (“Ciaccona”):

A Chiaccona or Chaccone is a dance, but surely no one could dance to this?  The critic Alex Ross describes it as “a grave dance before the Lord, the ballet of the soul in the course of life.” The dance is best heard in transcription for guitar, as demonstrated by the great Julian Bream:

J.S. Bach, Partita in D Minor, transcribed for guitar: