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CD Pick of the Week

Classical WETA 90.9 FM showcases notable new (or newly reissued) CDs each week. Hear selections from the CD on-air throughout the week, and check online to learn more about the artist and the music. Our friends at ArkivMusic join in by putting that recording on sale for the entire week and contributing a portion of each sale to WETA.

March 30, 2015

CD cover

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields: Bach Album

Sony 308779

For their second recording together with Joshua Bell as music director, he and the Academy focus on Johann Sebastian Bach.  It’s made up of violin favorites, and, unsurprisingly, that includes music for solo violin.  To make these works more collaborative, the musicians have turned to the 19th century, when Bach was relatively unknown.

That situation was largely remedied by Felix Mendelssohn, who is credited with bringing Bach’s music back into the musical mainstream.  Mendelssohn loved Bach, and studied his music extensively as a child.  In 1829, he presented the St. Matthew Passion for the first time since its composition, and it became a turning point in Western music’s appreciation of Johann Sebastian.

That fortunate development was based on several most fortuitous events.  First, Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham, was the owner of a collection of Bach manuscripts, which he acquired at auction four years before Felix was born.  Already the Mendelssohn family was engaged in preserving the music of Bach.  Felix’s great aunt, Sarah Itzig Levy, had studied harpsichord with Johann Sebastian’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, and devoted many a musical salon in her home to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  She had also commissioned works from another of the great Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  It’s possible to hear CPE’s influence in Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies, which he wrote when he was 12 and 13 years old. 

The Bach event that most changed Mendelssohn’s life, though, was a gift he received from his maternal grandmother, Bella Salomon, on his fourteenth birthday.  She gave him a copyist’s manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion, and this eventually led to the momentous performance in 1829.

But back to Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  On this Bach album, they’ve presented the two violin concertos, and the beautiful Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3.  Then there is the famous Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for solo violin.  This towering accomplishment, which Bell calls “perhaps the most perfect and ‘complete’ piece of music ever written for the violin,” inspired Mendelssohn to arrange it for violin with piano accompaniment.  For this recording, a string orchestra arrangement has been created from Mendelssohn’s piano accompaniment.  There’s a similar treatment of the Gavotte en Rondeau from the solo Violin Partita No. 3; that derives from a piano accompaniment created by Robert Schumann.

And so, through the collaboration of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, we have our final tribute album to Johann Sebastian Bach for our celebration of his birthday month.