Mauricio Kagel 8
If your immediate response to Kagel’s title is to suspect an elaborate joke, study of his text, with lines like “Ein feste Burg ist uns’rer Bach”, might suggest (at least to sensitive souls) a subversiveness bordering on blasphemy. So the easily shocked should be reassured that the one thing Kagel does not do is to send up large chunks of Bach’s Passions. This is a respectful, even reverent, tribute from one composer to a great predecessor, and there is no direct quotation or parody of Bach’s own music. As for the purely verbal parody, it is difficult to find such understated humour in any way offensive.
Written for performance during the tricentennial year of 1985, the work traces Bach’s life through a narration which draws from contemporary documents. The most obvious difference between its structure and that of Bach’s Passions is that the commentaries on that narration – arias, choruses – are a good deal less substantial. Kagel seems well aware that his own idiom is not primarily a lyrical one, and the story of Bach’s long and (fairly) eventful life is told through very direct, uncluttered music. Its style reminds me at times of the sober, earnest manner of the later Hanns Eisler, or even of Hindemith – especially the Hindemith of Mathis der Maler. Yet I wouldn’t want to push such analogies too far. From time to time the music taps a more expressionistic, even surrealistic vein, yet its prevailing restraint reflects the constructivist methods which Kagel employed in putting it together, deriving no fewer than 6,972 ‘basic models’, his insert-note tells us, from the musical letters of Bach’s name.
Such restraint does not make for dull listening, even though the emphasis on narration, and the use of a speaker for certain passages, undoubtedly reduces the purely musical interest of the work in places. Fortunately there is a lively spontaneity to compensate, which is well caught in an excellent performance recorded soon after the Berlin premiere in 1985. It is good to have a major work available by this important contemporary composer (born in Argentina, long resident in Germany) who is far too little known in the UK and America. The recording is fine, the documentation excellent.'