Conductor Matthew Glandorf gestures for a soloist to take a bow
after The Choral Arts Society's performance of J.S. Bach's
Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.
I didn't need an excuse to blow off Wednesday night's debate between the presidential candidates, but if I had, I couldn't have asked for a better one than the hourlong "Bach at 7" concert by Choral Arts Philadelphia. This season, the choir is working though the cycle of 18 of J.S. Bach's cantatas from 1734-35. Wednesday, it presented BWV 80, the familiar Ein feste Burg isst under Gott, and BWV 96, Herr Christ, der einige Gottesohn, which I had not known, despite my great affection for Bach's cantatas. Of late, they have absorbed me more than any other aspect of his work, but there are 260 of the things. There are only so many hours in a life.
Herr Christ charmed me with its prominent part for sopranino recorder, played in this performance by Rainer Beckmann, who must be at least 6-foot-2. (It's always the biggest guys who play the tiniest instruments. In every bluegrass band I've ever seen, the mandolin player is a giant.) The sopranino is the dog-whistle of the recorder family. Its lowest pitch is fˊˊ, and the holes are quite close together. Modern instruments, like my little plastic job, are tuned at A=440, but Choral Arts uses the Baroque tuning of A=415. (The string players also use old-style, convex bows, which produce a softer sound than modern, convex bows.) Because of the lower tuning, Rainer explained, the finger holes are very small (though he didn't say why). Then he took his instrument out of its case and showed it to me: The holes were like pinpricks.
One mystery of the cantata concerned the symbolism of the recorder part. In Bach's religious music the instrumentation always carries extra-musical connotations, Matthew Glandorf, the Choral Arts conductor, told me, but he has been unable to turn up any information on just what the recorder is supposed to stand for in this work.
"The Holy Spirit," I offered. "Flutes are always the Holy Spirit."
Unfortunately, the Paraclete is not mentioned anywhere in the libretto.
I also asked if there might have been practical reason for the scoring: The sopranino's piercing sound should guarantee that it can be heard over the chorus and the orchestra -- although in the cavernous nave of St. Clement's Church, that was not always the case. No, Matthew replied, mere practicality was not an issue for Bach. There is always a spiritual justification for the choice of instruments. If anyone has any ideas, now's your chance to show off.
Rainer also said Wednesday night was his first professional gig as a sopranino player. In that, I have him beat by 20 years. I played the instrument back in the late 80s in a production of Jean-Claude Van Italie's Mystery Play. It drove the other actors crazy.