in: Reviews

October 5, 2015

Re: When We Listen to Bach


Given the demands on his time, Johann Sebastian Bach frequently borrowed from earlier pieces, many of which have not survived: by some estimates, over 200 Weimar works are lost and only 15-20 percent of his Cöthen output survives. Tracing provenance may seem pedantic, but it helps inform us how this music did, and perhaps should, sound. Bach Rearranged, the first of Emmanuel Music’s 2015-16 Bach Reimagined, opened in Longy’s Pickman Hall Saturday. Ryan Turner’s thoughtfully offered settings and resettings of Johann Sebastian Bach—how his music was reincarnated in his own hands and how it has been shaped by other composers for modern ears. (BMInt’s related interview with Turner is here.)

The concert began with two pieces whose origins have been reevaluated and placed in very different realms. In pre-concert comments, John Heiss called the 1739 B-minor Orchestral Suite (S.1067) perhaps the best-known music for flute. He went on to note, however, that earlier sketches have been found setting the suite in A minor, suggesting it was written for a solo string instrument, perhaps a violin. Although many are better-acquainted with its Baroque predecessor, Christopher Krueger’s modern-flute performance of the suite presented a subdued rendition that I found entirely convincing: he seemed to customize a different voice for each of the movements (a vivid Bourée, a stately Polonaise, an ephemeral Badinerie), lending unique character and flavor to each dance. Turner’s orchestra provided ample support, although in privileging the soloist, he somewhat obscured the intricacies of the inner voices.

A reconstruction of the C-Major Concerto for Three Harpsichords (S.1064) was also part of this rethinking. The harpsichord concerti were frequently reworkings of earlier compositions; on Saturday , turner replaced the harpsichords with a violin reconstruction (S.1064R). In its more popular form, it’s difficult to distinguish the contribution of the three harpsichords. Replacing them with violins, however, results in a much more variety and color. The soloists lent distinct characteristics to their instruments: Heather Braun’s bold sound played nicely against Heidi Braun-Hill’s reserved, sleeker read; Rose Drucker produced a delicate, bejeweled vision. The three soloists fared well with the orchestra, although again the ensemble obscured the counterpoint, and despite the many successes of the performance, I found it difficult to hear nuances.

After intermission, Emmanuel Music returned with Stravinsky’s arrangement of four preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (E Minor, C-sharp Minor, and B Minor from book I, F Major from book II). Excepting the extended B-Minor Fugue, which is set entirely for strings, Stravinsky arranges all the prel;udes for strings and the fugues for bassoon and clarinet quintet. The arrangements from the composer’s late output are frequently denigrated as the final feeble thoughts of an aging master. Yet Saturday’s performance revealed Stravinsky’s exquisite understanding of counterpoint and voicing: his arrangements follow the original WTC score very closely, with rare and wonderful exceptions—at times he adds an errant note or voice that emphasizes the extended harmonic palette Bach was experimenting in these pieces. His transcription for orchestra or wind ensemble bypasses the natural decay of a clavier or piano: suspended notes reveled in warm vibrato and swelled into unexpected and surprising dissonances that cannot be expressed on the keyboard. Stravinsky’s arrangements are sadly unknown: Christopher Hogwood published the first edition in 2011, and, as of today, no recordings exist (save for an uncredited one here). Turner led both ensembles with a delicate transparency; in the absence of a prominent soloist, the ensemble played with an even balance between the sections that tastefully allowed the harmonic novelties of Stravinsky’s arrangement to express themselves clearly; Saturday’s performance was a boon to lovers of both composers.

Ward Swingle in the 70s

Ward Swingle in the 70s

Pairing these arrangements with Ward Swingle’s iconic settings [example here] highlights the ways in which the 18th-century composer is indestructible. Arranged at roughly the same time as Stravinsky’s, Swingles’ work is satisfyingly clever and entertaining—a straight-faced chorus scats Bach’s works with straight tone. Slowly, the music wends its way from the original almost into the harmonic territory of mid-20th-century jazz, playfully inviting the listener to reimagine how Baroque music can function in a more popular context. Members of Emmanuel Music sang very much in the spirit of the famous Swinglers. At times, excited scooping or overzealous vibrato marred the deadpan charm, but the set provided a fun conclusion to an entertaining rethinking of Bach.

The second concert of the series, Bach Reconstructed, will feature a reconstruction of his lost St. Mark Passion, in Emmanuel Church on March 19, 2016.

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.


  1. The Swingle Singers were widely, and wrongfully, mocked in classical music circles when “Bach’s Greatest Hits” first appeared in, hmmm, was it 1963 or 64? Their impeccable, musicianly approach to singing — light, fleet, vibratoless, derived from their jazz background (they descended from the Double Six de Paris, whose sides on Spotify still give much pleasure) was a revelation to the student I was at the time. No barking, no bombast, just those incredible, fluid Bachian lines; what a joy! So many years down the road, the discussion about appropriate musical style and vocal production in “early” repertoire is, evidently, still ping-ponging back and forth….

    “And the beat goes on” — Johann Sebastian, in a letter to Carl Philip Emmanuel

    Comment by Joel Cohen — October 6, 2015 at 8:13 am

  2. I was a great fan of the Swingle Singers from their earliest years and recordings. The original group was indeed eight singers, seven of them French with one American (Ward Swingle himself), plus drums and bass. I was lucky enough to hear them in New York’s Town Hall in 1967, and they certainly had the “chops” to perform these difficult arrangements live and unedited. Their recording of the Badinerie from Orchestral Suite #2 is linked in the article, in a hokey music video, with Christiane Legrand on the flute solo part. In the years since, Swingle moved to England and re-formed new groups with English singers. There is still a Swingle Singers group today, and although they do a fair bit of popular repertoire, they also maintain their devotion to Swingle’s Bach arrangements. They substitute “vocal percussion” for the bass and drums, and at the moment they are only seven singers instead of eight. Here’s an audience video of the Badinerie from their June 2012 tour performance of the Badinerie at TCAN in Natick, which I attended (, featuring Jo Goldsmith on the flute solo. Here’s a performance from London in 2013 ( And here is a marvelous coaching session and discussion from 2008 with Ward Swingle and the nearly-current group working on the Badinerie (

    Also on the subject of Bach in other guises, Leonard Bernstein did a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert called “Bach Transmogrified” in April of 1969. He chose a few familiar Bach pieces and presented them in various transcriptions. One of the works was the Little Fugue in G, which was first played in its original form on the then–Philharmonic Hall’s pipe organ. Bernstein then described how conductors in more recent times have adapted music of Bach for large symphony orchestras, saying that Leopold Stokowski had made such a transcription of this same Little Fugue in G. He then introduced Stokowski himself to conduct it. I was in the live audience, and I’ll never forget the experience. Here’s the video ( For something completely different, here is the current Swingle Singers doing the same Little Fugue in G (

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — October 7, 2015 at 6:53 pm

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