February 2012

Bach: h-moll Messe

This review covers four different video-recorded performances of Bach’s b-minor mass. The first is from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig with Blomstedt conducting, then second from Neubuern with Guttenberg conducting, the third from München with Karl Richter conducting, and the fourth from the Thomaskirche again with cantor Billing and a Jungenchor. Each performance is quite different and it would do an injustice to Bach’s h-moll messe to only see one performance. But first, I must say a summary about the mass itself. It was written by Johann Sebastian Bach during his Leipzig years when he was Cantor of the Thomaskirche. This was during the most mature phase of Bach’s composing years, and this piece was written by Bach without much expectation that it would ever be performed in his lifetime. Indeed, this piece also represents the pinnacle of all music of all times, written by the greatest composer to ever have lived. I look forward to the days in glory when Bach is again writing music, this time in a glorified state, and possibly with King David, the sweet musician, at his right hand providing words and suggestions for the melody.  The h-moll Messe is a demonstration of how perfectly words and music could go together — nobody did it better than Bach. The music of Bach always fits the words and fits them perfectly. Though the church I attend emphasizes the importance of having the tune match the words, I think of how often they fail. Two examples follow. The first is O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus, sung in a minor key to a Jewish dance rhythm. Bach would have been horrified. The second is Rock of Ages, sung to the New City tune. The New City tune itself is catchy, but absolutely terrible in its compositional development, in that the first phrase is repeated with slight variations all the way to the end without progression or true development, and it simply doesn’t fit the words of Rock of Ages, wording that needs a solid tune, not a fancy flighty tune. The words that Bach uses are words that are so correct and true that they will again be sung in heaven. The music has a level of complexity and genius that no composer to date has even come close to matching, but bringing sheer terror to the performer. It is sad that so many church musicians have culturally closed their ears to the music of Bach since his compositions were all in either German or Latin and never in English. The modern English and American church composers have no contest when placed against the least known or performed works of Bach. It’s a pity that we have to put up with the contemporary rubbish of Rutter, Townend, Getty, and others. Truly, I find it impossible to maintain a dry eye once a well-done Bach performance begins, as it is just too beautiful to contain the emotion. There are few other composers that can so overwhelmingly move a person. I pray that other church musicians will catch the Mendelssohn discovery that Bach can be imitated but never surpassed.

Bach’s B-minor Mass, Herbert Blomstedt conducting Gewandhausorchester und Gewandhauskammerchor ★★★★★
This is an all-adult performance (no child-musicians) on modern instruments. It is held in the choir loft of the Thomaskirche, facing the altar and grave of JS Bach. Having been in that church a number of times, I’m not sure how they fit everybody in. The acoustics were superb, and the performance was most delightful. Blomstedt is a very engaging conductor. He tends to manifest a very friendly face to the musicians, frequently smiling and interacting with the musicians with his eyes and hands, while singing along with the music. The musicians seem to respond in kind to him, maintaining a dynamic spirit that promotes the spirit of the piece. As an example, when the credo speaks of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, the music is quite solemn and hushed. This immediately transforms into a most joyous explosion of the trumpets, orchestra, and musicians when singing of Christ rising from the grave, and Blomstedt makes it happen perfectly. This performance is not with a large choir and orchestra but reflects perfectly the spirit of Bach in Bach’s home. I’m sure that Bach gave a smile in the grave.

B minor mass, performed by the Neubeuern Choral Society, Enoch zu Guttenberg conducting ★★★★
This is a difficult piece to the critic. There is so much good and bad about it. The performance itself was very good. The singers were very well organized. The orchestra and soloists performed flawlessly. Guttenberg conducted with intense spirit. I was surprised at how young many of the singers and musicians were. Though there were a few older people in the performance, it was mostly younger people. The choir itself was much larger than the orchestra and placed behind the orchestra, which was an average size for a Bach performance. The entire production occurred in a small narrow church so that it seemed that the distance between the conductor and last row of the choir was quite great.
Things that bothered me were several. The recording itself did not do justice to the performance, coming across as a bit flat. You really didn’t have the feeling like you were recording in a church. The conductor recently appeared to have left upper extremity surgery, and his arm was in a sling and cast, making it very distractive. The biggest flaw of the recording was the camerawork, which was constantly straying to painting and fixtures on the wall of the church. It was quite annoying. The camerawork and audio recording get a 1 star for failing to make you feel present at a performance. Other than that, it is a worthy recording to have in one’s collection.

Bach Messe in H-moll with Janowitz, Topper, Laubenthal and Prey, Conducted by Karl Richter, Münchener Bach Chor ★★★★
I have always liked Karl Richter, and his renditions of many of the Bach cantatas are absolutely first class. Interestingly, this performance, held in a large baroque-styled church in 1969, seemed to be a bit flat. Except for Hermann Prey, none of the soloists seemed really moved by what they were singing, and the entire performance limped. The quality of the performance was exemplary, and the performance occurred without a flaw. Even the cameraman seemed to be bored, with him rarely holding onto the performers, but focusing on the ceiling or drifting around the walls and lattice ornaments of the church. It would have been more enjoyable to simply listen to the performance, and not watch it on the DVD.

Bach h-moll Messe with Thomanerchor Leipzig, Cantor George Biller and Gewandhousorchester Leipzig ★★★
This performance had a number of distinct differences from the performances above. The choir was a boy’s choir. The alto solo was a male alto. There were added pieces in latin, some of which were sung by the cantor. The performance was quite decent, and stupendous for the boys. My problems with this production were several. First, I really don’t like boy’s choirs, except as a curiosity. Second, I find male altos to be especially harsh on the ear, even though this alto was not bad at all. Thirdly, the camera seemed to find particular fascination with the newly remodeled roof of the Thomaskirche. A nice touch was the camera panning in on Bach’s grave at the very beginning and very end of the performance.  All things considered, it was a rather impressive performance for the Knabenchor. This was a nice change from the typical performance of the B-Minor mass.

God and Time-Four Views

God and Time, Edited by Gregory Ganssle, with input from Paul Helm, Alan Padgett, William Lane Craig, and Nicholas Woltersdorff ★★★★
This book was a most fascinating read, though there were a few parts where the argument was not properly followed. Ganssle had assembled a very capable set of Christian scholars, all of them notably orthodox, yet all taking different views on the nature of time, and God’s relation to time. They vary from Helm claiming that God is entirely outside of time, to Woltersdorff, who asserts that God is a creature of time, with Padgett and Craig taking middle views, claiming that God in various ways inserted himself in time, or became a creature of time only during the creation episode, and otherwise is a timeless being. There are two main camps of thought regarding time. The A-series camp claims that time is “tensed”, or process theory of time, and God participates in time, though possibly not in the same manner in which we experience time. The B-series camp claims that time lacks true tenses, or, is “tenseless”, or static, and that God exists entirely outside of time. The B-series adherent would claim that for God, all moments in time in creation exist equally, thus, a million years ago is as real and “present” to God as “now” and as a million years from now. Arguments from each of the discussants point out the problems and tensions that occur with each view. I tend toward the most traditional formulation, as propounded by Paul Helm. I found it fascinating that the two most Reformed scholars (Helm and Woltersdorff) had the most opposite views – I would have thought otherwise.
I find that the greatest challenge is to comprehend the possibility of anything existing outside of space and time. As Emmanuel Kant correctly identified, it is impossible for the constructs of our mind to think outside of space and time. A similar puzzle in understanding God is to try to understand the nature of the trinity. Any explanation of the Trinity falls short. Time is a concept with similar problems. Did God create time? Is time intrinsically tied to our concept of space? How can a God that is timeless interact with people that know nothing but existence in time? How do thought processes occur outside of time? Or, does God think? Does he have emotion? What exactly do we really mean by the impassibility of God? If God is the fullness of emotion, how does emotion happen in a timeless environment? How did the timeless being interact in time? How could the incarnation occur if God is timeless? Does a “piece” of Him enter time? Why would a God beyond time care for such insignificant “timed” creatures? Are you really forced to adhere to the concept that creation has no beginning or end if God is timeless and “events” thus do not occur with him?  Contrary, if God himself is characteristically in time, how does he know the future and all things? Does time then become a “being” or entity that even God is subject to? I don’t think so. But, such questions are beyond comprehension and explanation to me, similar to trying to understand the trinity. After reading this book, I will leave the concept of time and space to remain an unexplainable mystery, not worth philosophizing over. I am left in ultimate awe and will spend eternity in amazement over the goodness of God, the “other” beyond time and space who cared for us miserable sinners. Soli Deo Gloria.

A Prophet On the Run

A Prophet on the Run: A Devotional Commentary on the Book of Jonah, by Baruch Maoz ★★★★★
Rev. Maoz is a Reformed pastor in Israel, growing up in the USA but moving to Israel fairly early in life. This book is a set of sermons that he gave to his congregation in Israel and later translated from Hebrew into English.
I rarely ever read devotionals. Streams in the Desert, Our Daily Bread, and others are contentless pep talks that get me nowhere. This book is totally different. Maoz does not labor over speculations or technical details, but simply expounds on the word before him. He doesn’t explain the chiastic structure of the book or delves into the factual basis of the whale but simply assumes it to be true. He doesn’t speculate on the change of appearance of Jonah while living inside a whale and how that might have affected the Ninevite audience. Moaz does spend much time at simply looking at the text and elaborating on what is speaking in the book of Jonah. Though I’ve had pastors preach on Jonah, I’ve never had them find the goldmines of truth in Jonah as Maoz is able to do. Maoz is able to show how Jonah closely matches our own personal lives of trying to give God instruction and define who he should be merciful to. He shows the overwhelming graciousness of God, with both Jonah and Ninevites, in that neither of them desired God’s will, yet both in God’s sovereign grace were drawn to him.
After each chapter, Maoz includes a prayer, a summary of the chapter, and then questions for reflection on the material just read. This short book shows how one can take an academic approach to the Scriptures, and yet glean a massive harvest of personal instruction for our daily lives. It is a pity that there are so few expositors of Maoz’s ability. I will soon be working on his book about Malachi, and hope that he translates many of his other sermons on books of Scripture.

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Translated by Andrew McAndrews ★★★★★
This book was read on the Kindle, downloaded from Amazon.com. The Brothers Karamazov is the tale of three brothers and their eccentric father, living in a small town in Russia. Each of the three brothers turned out to be somewhat different from the others, and the first 1/3 of the book is the character development of each of the brothers in turn as well as the father. The second third of the book details events which lead up to the murder of the father, and the dilemma of deciding who did it. The final third is a detail of the courtroom drama and conviction of one of the brothers. The book has many long sections of prolonged narrative and tends to move very slowly, yet constantly manages to keep you on the edge of your chair. Dostoyevsky is a true master of suspense and the development of the characters in his books. He spends much time describing the smallest, insignificant details, many of which become important much later in the novel. It’s a dark novel and seems to be somewhat autobiographical. Dostoyevsky does not spare describing the human condition. The novel itself receives 5 stars.
The Kindle edition receives only 1 star. Oddly, the bargain basement Kindle version of this novel (which I have in the Complete Works of Dostoyevsky on Kindle) is better indexed than this version was. The individual sections (books) were indexed, but not the 10-14 chapters in each section. Kindle has the tendency of occasionally jumping randomly to another portion of the book, and returning to where you were reading can be a challenge. Oddly, Kindle does not have a “reset the synch” function for the farthest page read, and so to re-synch will often put you in the last pages of the book, rather than where you were last reading. I’m not entirely convinced that the Kindle is ideal for book reading, save for when traveling.
I will now be reading “The Gambler” and “The Idiot”, after which I’ll retreat to the more somber works of Solzhenitsyn, “In the First Circle” and “The Gulag Archipelago” as well as Shirers’ “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. This is my novel reading schedule for the next several months. You’ll have to wait for reviews for the more serious reading that I do. I welcome reading recommendations.

Keeping Score

Keeping Score – Shostakovich Symphony #5 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony ★★★★
Besides Bach, Shostakovich is one of the truly great composers to ever have lived. His was a life like Bach’s that was filled with tormentors and critics that had no appreciation for the greatness of the person. This film is one of the “Keeping Score” series where the director of the San Francisco Symphony engages in an educational forum that briefly describes the life of Shostakovich while doing a quick analysis of the 5th symphony. It is quite educational, and even if one doesn’t like Shostakovich, they would find this film to be informative. The DVD actually consists of two parts, the first being an analysis of the piece, and the second being a live performance in London of the 5th symphony. Together they help to give a person a starting understanding of the person of Shostakovich and the style of his compositions. The film is definitely intended for musical beginners, though anybody will get value out of seeing Thomas’ interpretation one of the great symphonies of all time, Shostakovich’s fifth.


Conagher, starring Sam Elliott, based on a book by Louis L’Amour ★★★★★
Betsy and I have watched a number of westerns recently, including True Grit (3 stars), High Noon (4 stars), Once Upon a Time in the West (1 star), Magnificent Seven (2 stars), and the Wild Bunch (1 star).  These films will not be reviewed by me. Several (the 1 star films) were so bad we could barely endure the entire film. Even True Grit had terrible acting, and no real moral punch to it. Sorry, but John Wayne is not the best cowboy. Conagher was completely different. Sam Elliott was a soft-spoken, but very well-acted cowboy who minds his own business, and keeps his promises even at the risk of his life. This gets him in jeopardy with a band of cattle rustlers after the cattle Conagher is guarding. Meanwhile, a young family moves into a lone house not far removed from Conagher, but the husband perishes in an attempt to get cattle for starting a ranch. Eventually, Conagher endears himself to the husbandless/fatherless family, and …, well, watch the movie. This movie was likable because it did not create a fictional west. There were bad guys and good guys. The Indians were not painted as tree-hugging earth-loving pacifists, but for the feared savages that settlers in real life knew them to be. Conagher did not have the miraculous art of killing 12 people with 8 bullets while shooting from the hip. He mostly behaved like a normal person would and should behave. The filming was nice with superb scenes. No “in your face” shots, or prolonged emotional drama. The action was a bit slow, but that helped paint the realism of the film. Altogether, this made a true-to-life but suspenseful drama, well worth watching.

History of the United States

History of the United States (Teaching Company Series), by Allen Guelzo, Gary Gallagher, and Patrick Allitt ★★★★
It is impossible in the course of 84 – 1/2 hour lectures to give a detailed history of the United States. Yet, Guelzo, Gallagher, and Allitt do a fine job of reviewing the high points of the American experience. Starting from its discovery by the Europeans and settlement, all the way to early George W. Bush, these three lectures provide a delightful summary of the last few hundred years of the United States. It is entertaining and gives their perspective, typically respectfully, of their view of the American experiment. I don’t always agree with their analysis and conclusions, but that doesn’t distract from their ability to give a fairly balanced discussion of America throughout the years. The most contemporary discussions on matters such as the new world order, environmentalism, women’s rights movements, etc. did not deserve full 1/2 hour lectures but are too charged with topics to glance over briefly. All in all, the lecture series works well as all the instructors are masters at the art of teaching.