Saturday, October 24, 2015


Countertenors are superb in J.S. Bach


We will never end discovering the phenomenal possibilities of high-pitched male voices, be they countertenors, altos or male sopranos. This CD is typical at that level. Damien Guillon has the range of a mezzo soprano but with the male harmonics and he is easy and sounds full and warm in the lower range just as much as in the higher range, which I have always found kind of problematic with a female mezzo soprano.

But a countertenor has an extraordinary expressivity because he is a man and he can give to his voice some tones a woman wouldn’t be able to reach. In Cantata BMW 170 it is typical how the sadness of the sinner, the resignation and yet the desire to get over that fate of being a sinner like all men are trying to emerge from some kind of bleak tone meaning there might be no hope, no way out and yet in the end it reaches some faith, some hope in Jesus and in Jesus’ promise that he will be forgiven if he strives and tries hard to get over his sins. Damien Guillon very easily expresses this double dimension from resignation in the absence or impossibility of hope, and yet to that hope he finds in Jesus, in his faith, in his conviction that he will be saved in spite of being a human sinner. There is in this cantata such a feeling that after all we can only strive and have the best life we can but it is all in Jesus and in how we will be judged or deemed. There is nothing we can do about the end. Just resignation, striving and faith and there might be a way out. Damien Guillon just has the voice for this way of thinking and seeing life, a very protestant way indeed. Damien Guillon can even be poignant about it from time to time.

In Cantata BMW 35 we have a new chapter of that triple dilemma of man, both body and mind, confronted to God and God’s predestination of humanity, since he knows everything that was, that is and that will be, a God that reverberates in your soul. The opening Concerto is so strongly optimistic that we are there in full communion with the heavens and the angels of God. Dance we must, sing we must and believe we must. We are confronted to perfection, and the three levels of the organ are just all playing and singing in some kind of tempo unison. But the meaning of this cantata is in one Greek word directly imported from Jesus’ Aramaic preaching. “Ephphatha” he said, and “Be opened” he meant, the Greek form of an Aramaic word uttered by Christ when healing the man who was deaf and dumb. « Mark 7: 33-35: 33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ""Ephphatha!"" 35 At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. » And this time the meaning is simple: faith is the belief that by letting God pour his light in us we will be saved, we will be spared the suffering of sinning; Deep hope, deep trust in God’s perfect creation and management of his creation and thus of us. Amazing enough Damien Guillon with his male countertenor voice expresses that feeling, that empathy with God, if we can imagine having any empathy with God, as if it came from deep in us, from the deepest and most somber side of our soul and mind. It is the pure child in us, the virginal boy in us that is speaking through Damien Guillon’s voice. We can only project ourselves in his voice, in his song, in his faith, in his belief and we are in touch with Jesus and God. We are saved. We can go out in the world and miracles will happen provided we remain opened by the call of Jesus.

The organ, a modern organ in Strasbourg’s Église Réformée du Bouclier, is pure in sound and rich in many effects. It is played in a modern building too a building that has no vault or domes, that has no Romanesque or even gothic architecture. It is plain, undecorated, with a very square volume with very vertical and horizontal lines, what I could call a perpendicular space. The sound of the organ is thus pure and clear but it has no resonance coming from the building. That makes the sound nearly cold, distant but it is very effective when three registers are competing to lead the whole piece. And I must say these organ pieces are perfect for it and Johann Sebastian Bach was an expert on that kind of work. He has three pitch levels, the lower pitch, the middle pitch and the higher pitch and in the Trio Sonata in D minor we have that constant competition and the possible alliance of two levels against the third one. But what more Bach plays on the tempos of the three registers. The lower one is slower, the middle one is just peaceful and quiet and the top one has the tendency to be fast and even energetically galloping or flying and dancing at high speed to some birdlike singing or music. This triple conversation is interesting indeed. Does it have a meaning? I am not sure but it does evoke emotions in the ears and heart of the listener. Each register moves in us some feelings and empathy as if we could hear the deep voice of our body, the serious voice of our mind and the mesmerizingly fast voices of our soul and angels. The body, the mind and heavens all in the same composition at the same time! This organ music is the full voice of man in its three dimensions and the result is never sure, never won before being fought for, strived for, gained with Jesus’ help and the conviction that we can be saved if we believe. I must say Maude Gratton, the organist, is quite convincingly able to play on these three levels, three voices, three beings in us and in the organ.

In Fantasia and Fugue in G minor the organ starts its triple game again and this time the three registers do not really try to find some unison. They are really trying to compete generally two against one, most of the time the lower register and the higher register are uniting against the middle one that fights quite hard to take over and take off. The music is absolutely beautiful but we have to understand it had a spiritual meaning for Johann Sebastian Bach, a spiritual meaning we maybe do not share any more. And yet let yourself be opened by this music to the deep spirituality in it and you will feel deep in you some pangs of body impulses with the lower register, some reasonable and sensible mental language telling you what you must do, what you must pacify in you, your impulses, to just have a human life, and yet the higher register will come back and will try to get you up into the air, into the sky, to heavens, with angels and miracles if you can follow their tempo and their speed. High up in these heavens you have the trance of Jesus revisited and fully received because you have been opened. And then you feel your impulses fighting to take over, your mind fighting to control them and your soul if you want fighting to get you off the ground, to get you in full supernatural meditation.


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