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New Takes On Bach And Handel Delight The Ears During The Pandemic

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he's not listening to a lot of classical music during the pandemic, but a couple of recent recordings of works that go back to such great baroque masters as Bach and Handel have really caught his attention. Here's Lloyd's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN'S "SUITE NO. 3, IN C MAJOR, BWV 1009")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The news is so heavy these days I find it hard to listen to music that's too serious. But a couple of recordings of serious music have delighted my ears, and I've been listening to them over and over again. One is a fascinating experiment.

Several years ago, I heard Johnny Gandelsman, the wonderful violinist of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, play a whole evening devoted to Bach's complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin. At the end of this marathon, Yo-Yo Ma, who was in the audience to hear his friend, shouted out encore. It got a big laugh. But Gandelsman was unflappable. He picked up his violin and started to play the opening of one of Bach's suites for solo cello, a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. That got an even bigger laugh.

Now Gandelsman has a new recording of his violin transcription of all six Bach suites for solo cello. And on the violin, these famous pieces sound like brand-new works. They are lighter, airier. A great cellist like Ma or the legendary Pablo Casals gives these pieces a deep, soulful beauty, as if the cello is singing of grief or mourning even in the liveliest movements. But on the violin, we can hear even more clearly the way a baroque suite is actually a set of dances. The violin emphasizes their buoyancy and lilt.

Bach composed his sixth and final suite for a cello with five strings instead of the usual four, and Gandelsman here uses a five-string violin, not unheard of to anyone familiar with country music fiddling.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN'S "SUITE NO. 6, IN D MAJOR, BWV 1012 I. PRELUDE")

SCHWARTZ: I've also been enjoying a new recording by one of my favorite young singers, Metropolitan Opera mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey. It's a set of three seldom-heard 18th-century cantatas by Handel, Haydn and Alessandro Scarlatti, all on the lugubrious theme of lost love.

The CD is called "Arianna," and each of the pieces tells the story of Ariadne, Arianna in Italian. She was the princess from Crete who fell in love with the Greek hero Theseus. She helped him find his way out of the labyrinth after he slew the Minotaur by giving him a ball of thread so that he could retrace his steps through the maze. Theseus took her to the island of Naxos but abandoned her there. Eventually, the god Dionysus rescued her and turned her into a constellation.

In the 20th century, this was the subject of Richard Strauss' famous opera "Ariadne Auf Naxos." But it was a subject that had already interested composers over 300 years earlier. Handel, like Bach, occasionally recycled his own music. The first aria in the Handel cantata that Kate Lindsey sings on this recording is actually the same music for a Handel aria she sang just this past season at the Met. She played a very kinky young Nero in Handel's viciously satirical opera "Agrippina," which was composed around the same time as the cantata.

In the opera, Nero's ruthlessly cynical mother Agrippina will stop at nothing to make him emperor. In one scene, she's gotten Nero to attract followers by throwing money at them. It's the very same music, down to the memorable introduction, that Handel uses in the cantata as a lament over lost love. Kate Lindsey was as nasty as Nero as she is moving in the cantata.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AH CRUDEL, NEL PIANTO MIO, HWV 78: II. ARIA 'AH CRUDEL, NEL PIANTO MIO'")

KATE LINDSEY: (Singing in Italian).

SCHWARTZ: I'm not quite sure why even the darkest music of this period should be so appealing in these dark times. Maybe the constant forward movement and the relative lightness of the scoring makes time seem to pass more quickly and an end is more clearly in sight. Maybe that's what we need to feel now more than ever.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz writes for WBUR Boston's online journal The ARTery and is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed new recordings of Johnny Gandelsman playing his violin transcriptions of Bach's complete music for solo cello and Kate Lindsey singing arias by Handel, Haydn and Scarlatti on a CD called "Arianna."

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

We end today's show on a sad, happy note. Sad because our associate producer Mooj Zadie is leaving our show, but happy for him because he's moving to a great position as a producer of the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." I'll miss his creativity, his passion for audio, video and film and his production skills in all of the above. And I'll miss talking with him about radio and podcasts and movies. He's tipped me off to some great stuff to watch and listen to.

At the end of Monday's show, on the day of FRESH AIR's 33rd anniversary as a daily national program, I talked about how frustrating it is for all of us who have something, like an anniversary, that we should be celebrating together as a group, instead to have to celebrate quietly, in isolation or semi-isolation. Now FRESH AIR has to say goodbye to Mooj without throwing him a goodbye party, you know, with all of us in the same room. But we still will be celebrating with him online. So, Mooj, see you soon - on my computer. We wish you all good things in your new position, and we wish you good health.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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