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Unclogging the Spirit

"Unclogging the spirit" was a phrase used by a film critic (I think John Simon) in reviewing Ermanno Olmi's great film, "The Tree of the Wooden Clogs." No composer, in my opinion, is so adept at unclogging the spirit and allowing it access to such spiritual depths as Johann Sebastian Bach.I have several times referred to the wonderful recordings of Bach "Cantatas" performed by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Chorale during their 2000 "Bach Pilgrimage." Aside from the splendid performances, the cantatas are sung in the context of the liturgical seasons for which they were composed. Hence the recordings focus upon a particular Sunday or feast day, and do not mix indiscriminately one from Advent with one from Easter, as do most other recordings of the Bach cantatas.Like everything else, the price of the recordings has gone up, and I was debating whether to purchase one of their newest releases containing the cantatas for Whit Tuesday and Trinity Sunday (I know: we're not even into Lent). But the performances are so fine, Gardiner's notes so insightful, that I was tetering on the brink.What pushed me over into making the purchase (aside from President Obama's injunction to "spend, spend, stimulate, stimulate") was a comment made about the recording on the Amazon website. It is by a David Bryson from Glossop Derbyshire England. Here is some of what Mr. Bryson wrote:

Interesting and enlightening as Gardiner unfailingly is [in his notes for the cantatas], in this instance my attention was captured even more by the short essay from Paul Agnew, who takes the tenor solos on the Trinity Sunday disc. In brief, Agnew is a professional musician who thought he knew Bach because he knew the Passions, the 48 and the concertos. Not only did he not know the cantatas, which he now hears as the core of Bach's output, most professional musicians, he tells us, did not know them either so recently as 2000. This eases my own sense of guilt at being so late in becoming acquainted with them, but it further enhances my amazement at what this pilgrimage is achieving.

And he concludes:

As I acquire more of this marvelous series I am coming to think of it as a unity more than as a series of separate productions, and although each disc has to be assessed separately from the others I am finding that the assessment tends to be much the same every time. Similarly with the cantatas themselves. I find them less a series of freestanding works like, say, Beethoven's sonatas than a great unified river of inspiration whose source is Bach's unshakable faith allied to his limitless talent.

Let me assure all and sundry that I am not in the employ of, nor do I receive any compensation from"Soli Deo Gloria" productions. My motivation is strictly soli Deo gloria (and to propose a little Lenten "drno" for the spirit).

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Bach's cantatas have been well-served by the recording industry. Not only Gardiner, but also people like Tom Koopman, Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan, Helmut Rilling, and Harnoncourt, of course. My first acquaintance with them came as an undergraduate in a leafy New Jersey college town, when I discovered a couple of London LPs (this was well over 50 years ago), recorded in English, with the incomparable Kathleen Ferrier singing the alto solos. And in fact even before that, an ancient (pre-WWII?) recording on 78s of Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (for Epiphany) with its startling beginning on the horn.How could the man turn out quite so many? and think of the ones we don't have, because they've been lost.

Yes, this fan of John Simon (and Ermano Olmi) can confirm that Simon wrote that phrase. Actually he didn't think this film, whose climax was the communal killing of an ox, was as good as Olmi stuff which is about urban alienation. But it's still worth watching, IMO, for Olmi's sympathetic eyes towards the Italian peasants.

I wonder what Bach felt and thought when he heard his own music performed. Did he sort of speak it to God? Or did he listen for God in it?

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