Monday, 15 July 2013

J.S.Bach - Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein - guitar

It's been half a year since I recorded anything, which surprised me when I realised it. I've been playing in the background, trying to keep practicing, when I can fit it into the gaps between 'real' work and life. I certainly haven't transcribed anything recently, but the other day, when working on 'Ich Ruf' zu dir, herr Jesu Christ', which has been regularly transcribed by others, I had a first listen to the full set of Bach Chorale Preludes, and one in particular just jumped out at me.

'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein' (When we are in our greatest distress) BWV641 is unique amongst these organ works for its highly ornamented melody, giving it a most cantabile quality, indeed the steadiness of the accompaniment gives me the impression slightly of an operatic recitativo. To me it has a lot in common with the Andante from solo violin sonata BWV1003, with their slow pulses and achingly sad major tonality, and of course, when played on the organ, it has an unmistakably funereal air, and as the highly church-like final cadence fades out I always half expect a minister or priest to commence with a solemn eulogy.

Musically it never strays far from home, only briefly making its way out into the dominant and relative minor keys, but it has certainly hints of that same modal feeling which makes music like the Heiliger Dankgesang so very very powerful, and I'm I can hear hints of the suspensions which mean 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' makes my hair stand on end every single time.

I swapped the key from G into D, as you so often have to do with the guitar, but I was most surprised to find that the melody was thus reasonably comfortably brought into the range of the instrument. The pedal line only required a few octave jumps to fit, and luckily the important descending melodies didn't have to be broken across octaves. The inner voices required a bit more tweaking - long held notes don't really make sense on a plucked instrument, so the recitativo aspect is more pronounced, and occasionally the voices had to be swapped. It's also not that easy; four part harmony on a guitar never is, even at a slow tempo, so there are the usual scrapes, pauses and mistakes that come from being an amateur. But it's a most exquisite piece of music, and I'm pleased that it can be played on the guitar without too much fuss.