• Sarah Kwok

Bach Clavier-übung III – August 6

Alexander Weimann

The talented Alexander Weimann will be performing selections from Bach's Clavier-übung III, also known as the German Organ Mass, and conducting the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in concerts for the Vancouver Bach Festival. Below, he speaks more about the programs and the ways we can be affected by this beautiful music.

So, tell me about the shows

I have two shows coming up with the Bach Festival, one organ recital and one conducting the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and a group of superb singers with Purcell's Hail, bright Cecilia and Locke's Tempest. The organ recital will feature excerpts from Bach's Clavierübung III, a collection of incredibly beautiful compositions for this instrument, and the concert with the orchestra will of course feature Purcell's immortal Ode, for soloists, choir and big orchestra (trumpets, woodwinds, strings) and all sorts of spin-off scoring you can get from that complement. The Clavierübung comprehends, among other, parts of the Mass service, and I decided to collect the essential elements of the so called Lutheran Mass (Kyrie, Gloria) and add the Credo, and an Improvisation, as well as the magnificent Praeludium and Fuge in Eb-major, perhaps one of the greatest pieces for organ, he ever wrote, even though I am reluctant to say this, since Bach is such a great composer for so many instruments, but to us organists it feels, in his organ pieces he is where he belongs, totally free, almost crazy, and totally structured and convincing at the same time. 

The Clavier-Übung III is a prolific work which is so varied in its movements, as it looks both backwards and forwards with a variety of styles - how did you choose which movements to play?

As said before, it's a very comprehensive collection of movements, so  I tried to extract some of the most important to be realized in a one-hour recital. And you are right, it's very much (like Monteverdi's Vespers) about the old vs. new idea. So I kept this in mind as well. If you have so much overwhelmingly beautiful to chose from, it's a hard job, but I'm looking forward to this.

Bach wrote on the title page of the Clavier-Übung that this was "Prepared for music-lovers and particularly for connoisseurs of such work, for the recreation of the spirit." With its demanding technical nature this is not music for amateurs (not that that's something Bach's music is known to be) - can you elaborate on how this was written to appeal to music-lovers and connoisseurs, and what kind of recreation of the spirit does it provide?

Bach always had a very holistic approach to music in general, and that shows in particular in his publications (which are mainly keyboard music). The technical aspect, though necessary, corporeal so to speak, was of interest to him only in the sense of something that symbolizes another thing much more profound, the (wickedly intricate) texture of his writing being just the idea of the cosmic harmony we are part of, it's hard to put in words, but Bach deals us such harsh dissonances, such unexpected harmonic progressions which make sense only in hindsight, like many things in life do. So, it provides recreation of mind of whoever tries to play these pieces, you have to go through so much hardship to experience blessing and redemption, sheer beauty in the end, and I think that's the case for the listener too. Bach is not fast food. It's so rich, and multi-layered, you can't really escape the power of his spiritual insight. Not an easy concept or recreation, but a forceful one.

Hail! Bright Cecilia is also a monumental work that features many musical genres, and it speaks with both emotion and musicality (how fitting that the lyrics speak of "the mighty Art // To court the Ear or strike the Heart"). Cecilia, patron saint of music, is referred to as the "Great Patroness of Us and Harmony" - how do you to create in this music something unified when there are so many different elements, and how does this then exemplify the power of music to unify in general?

A good question: in a nutshell, I would say, Purcell knew how to create an overall shape with the means of a cantata-like sequence of movements, or "numbers". But then, even though Handel is THE representative of the so called numbers-opera, he creates a very directional and momentous musical drama that doesn't at all feel like a sequence of single units. I guess that's the secret, to make you feel like time stands still. And in that moment of time not passing anymore, he allows you to look at so many aspects of sound, harmony, coherence, and it's done in such a breathtaking way that you forget you have been listening already for 45 minutes, and here is the end. It's an amazing experience.

I came across an interview that you did in which you mentioned that you were drawn to both Baroque and jazz music from an early age, that the two were closely related, and you speculated that if Handel or Bach were alive today, they might very well be jazz musicians! Could you talk more about this relationship, both in terms of how you relate to the two genres and how they relate to each other?

To me, music is primarily practice. It doesn't need a script. Certain pieces, like symphonies etc need the script, no doubt, and certain experiences can be lived through only by the means of a composer going through the process of expression and finding a score. But I was always fascinated by what one can come up with on the spot, without a script. I still love this, sitting at a keyboard (or multiple) and exploring... Sometimes, I think Baroque and Jazz are languages with very similar grammar, but different vocabulary.

Experience all of this yourself when Alexander performs Bach's Clavie-rübung III at 1pm on August 6 at Christ Church Cathedral and conducts Hail! Bright Cecelia at 7:30pm on August 9 at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts as the closing concert of the Vancouver Bach Festival.

More information: http://www.earlymusic.bc.ca/events/bach-clavierubung-iii-the-organ-mass-feat-alexander-weimann/

Hail! Bright Cecilia: http://www.earlymusic.bc.ca/events/purcell-hail-bright-cecilia/

Alexander Weimann: https://alexanderweimann.com/

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