sun, 09-dec-2007, 08:45

Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff

johann sebastian bach: the learned musician, christoph wolff

Along with listening to all of Bach’s extant music via the Bach Edition I wanted to learn more about the man, and hopefully understand the music a little bit better. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 to a musical family in Eisenach. By the time he was eighteen he was a respected organologist and received appointments as church organist first in Arnstadt (in 1703) and then in Mühlhausen (1707). In 1708 he was appointed organist and chamber musician in Weimar, and later became concertmaster there. His next position was in Cöthen from 1717 to 1723 where he served as capellmeister. His final position was as cantor at St. Thomas School in Leipzig where he remained until his death in 1750. Along the way he was married twice (his first wife died in 1720) and had twenty children, ten of whom survived into adulthood.

Christoph Wolff’s biography is a very good scholarly introduction to what we know about Johann Sebastian Bach. Wolff is a well respected Bach expert, directing the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig and author and editor of many other Bach publications. This expertise really comes through in the book, which is filled with scholarly discussion and excerpts from what little remains from Bach’s life. Because most of Bach’s letters, writings and music are gone, a biography of Bach is more like a series of reasoned hypotheses that can never be fully rejected. Wolff does an excellent job leading us through these arguments.

I was most surprised by how much of Bach’s life is simply unknowable because so much of what he wrote, both musically and personally, has been lost. He wrote five complete cantata cycles during his first years in Leipzig, but almost all of the final two series are lost. And the lack of personal writings means that we know almost nothing about how Bach lived his life day to day, or what he thought about his music. Wolff writes in his introduction:

Bach’s biography suffers from a serious lack of information on details, many of them crucial… Indeed, it would not be difficult to devote entire chapters to what it not known about Bach’s life. Thus, conjectures and assumptions are unavoidable, and this book necessarily calls for numerous occurrences of “probably,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” and the like. Yet, as I try to demonstrate in these pages, it is not impossible to reveal, even in the case of Bach, the essence of a life.

He goes on to say that what we do know about him comes to us in the form of his music, music which Bach used to explore the boundaries of what was known about musical science at that time. Although I lack the musical training to understand what was so revolutionary about Bach’s explorations (for example, writing about The Well-Tempered Clavier, Wolff writes “In demonstrating that the tonal system could be expanded to twenty-four keys not just theoretically but practically, Bach set a milestone in the history of music whose overall implications for chromatic harmony would take another century to be fully realized.”), Wolff’s analyses of Bach’s music in the book only increases my appreciation for Bach’s music.

tags: Bach  books  music  review 
sun, 25-nov-2007, 20:31

American Pie cover

american pie cover

It’s become a Sunday night tradition to bake a pizza using Peter Reinhart’s whole grain pizza dough recipe from his whole grain bread book. Yesterday I bought his 2003 book on pizza. I don’t know that I’ll be giving up the whole grain dough for a more traditional white flour crust, but this evening’s pizza will feature one of the sauces from the book. We had been using a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, but Reinhart says that the two tricks to a great pizza sauce are a bit of acidity (vinegar or lemon juice), and not overcooking the tomatoes. Since we’re using canned crushed tomatoes, which are already cooked during canning, he claims cooking them a second time is unnecessary and will dull the flavor and brightness of the sauce. We’ll find out.

The book starts with his hunt for the best pizza in the world, which takes him to Italy, New Haven, Philadelphia, Providence, New York, Arizona (where the best pizza was, believe it or not), and several other cities. His conclusions at the end are that the are great pizza places that are great because of their context (the neighborhood, local traditions, your memories of the restaurant, etc.) and those that are great because they have a dedicated pizzaiolo that makes every pizza in the place. That sort of pizza parlor is rare, and so most good pizza is contextually good but not great. Regardless, next time I visit any of the cities in the book, I’ll have to check out some of the places he reviews.

The rest of the book discusses what it takes to make good pizza at home, including setting up your oven, and making the dough, sauce, and toppings. He also has a detailed section about grilling pizza using techniques he learned from George Germon in Providence, who invented the style. There are a wide range of interesting recipes after this section. My only complaint with the second part is that the dough recipe ingredients are given only in volumes, not weights. He probably did this to make the recipes seem easier for a more general audience, but weights would have been helpful for those of us who regularly bake bread.

But that’s my only complaint. The first section is entertaining and is a great introduction to the variety of styles of pizza being made around the world, the instructions are solid and easy to follow and there are a lot of recipes to choose from. Finally, the publisher (Ten Speed Press) spent the money for a sewn binding, which means the book should last a lifetime and will lie flat without breaking.

tags: books  pizza  Reinhart  review 
sun, 18-nov-2007, 14:58

Violin Concertos

photo by xrrr

Note: I started this post way back in July, and after moving into our new house I let it get away from me. I do still hope to continue listening to the whole of the Bach Edition, but as this long delay shows, it’s probably going to take a lot longer than I thought if I’m going to say much of anything about each disc. Yesterday I got Christoph Wolff’s one volume biography of Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, and even though it’s not an analysis of his music (anyone have any suggestions for such a book?), it’s insights into the man may help me in understanding the music. I also got The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection, and the Violin Concertos are one of the discs that make up the “350 essential works.” The NPR book looks to be pretty good at answering the question of which pieces a classical newbie should listen to, but the CD recommendations themselves aren’t going to be very useful for me. eMusic has a fantastic classical selection, but the major record labels aren’t on there, so I’ll need to find the best from BIS, Naxos and other great independent classical labels.

The fifth CD in the Bach Edition set is a collection of Bach’s violin concertos: BWV 1041, 1042, 1052, 1056 and 1064. The BWV numbers are a way of thematically categorizing (instead of chronologically, like Opus numbers) Bach’s works, so it’s something of a surprise that the numbers aren’t consecutive on this disc. According to this Wikipedia page, BWV 1041, 1042 and 1056 are violin concertos, but BWV 1052, 1057 and 1064 are all categorized with the harpsichord concertos. As noted below, this is because evidence suggests that the harpsichord concertos were written from violin concertos which have been lost (and reconstructed here). This CD doesn’t include BWV 1043–1045, which are classified on the Wikipedia page with the rest of the violin concertos. I’m sure I’ll run into them as I work my way through the corpus but the disconnect is surprising.

Most of the pieces were recorded in 1992 by Camerata Antonio Luco, with Emmy Verhey on violin. The last piece, Concerto for 3 violins, strings, and basso continuo in D Major (BWV 1064) was recorded by the Amsterdam Bach Soloists in 1988.

Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in A Minor, BWV 1041

The liner notes for this CD say that this concerto follows a three movement “Vivaldi form” of fast-slow-fast, but that Bach improved on Vivaldi by better integrating the three parts into a unified form. I don’t think I’m a refined enough listener to see what they’re talking about, but I like the comparison to Vivaldi because it’s got the sort of fast pacing and interplay between the instruments that makes Vivaldi enjoyable. The piece starts out with a very lively tempo with different instruments playing against each other. The second part is slower and less remarkable (the liner notes call it a “cantilena”), but the final part returns to the faster rhythm with the soloists alternating with the full ensemble.

Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in E Major, BWV 1042

This is a very familiar concerto. The first movement starts with a “tutti theme” repeated throughout the piece, which means that all the instruments play together, rather than individual parts carrying the melody as is common in other sections. The slower second movement is carried by the solo violin, accompanied by a few instruments, harpsichord especially. Both the NPR guide and the liner notes mention how lyrical the solo line is in the second movement. The final movement is in “rondo form”, which the Wikipedia tells me means the principle theme is repeated with contrasting themes interspersed between. For me, I think it’s this form more than anything else that says Baroque to me when I’m listening to Bach. Here, the offsetting main and secondary themes switch back and forth rapidly (four or five times in the three minutes of the movement), keeping the listener interested in the piece without being distracted.

Concerto for violin and strings in D Minor, BWV 1052 (reconstructed from a harpsichord version that Bach arranged from this, missing, original)

Lots of Bach’s music has been lost, and the three remaining pieces on the disc are reconstructed from works for other instruments. The first one, Concerto for violin and strings in D Minor (BWV 1052) is reconstructed from a harpsichord version that exists but which Bach arranged from the original violin version which is no longer around. I suppose that with so much music available, an expert can see how Bach re-wrote is other pieces, and apply the same techniques to reconstruct music that is known to have existed.

I like the first movement of this one a lot. It seems to range wildly around, but always returning to the same melody with different instruments taking it up. And all throughout the movement, there are striking moments where a larger group of musicians plays the same theme. The movement also has an unusual sounding section in the middle where a pair of violins are playing melodies that sound dangerously close to being out of tune. The main melody intrudes a few times, and the movement eventually returns back to normal by the end. I’m sure there are terms for these things, and I’m going to have to figure out what they are so I don’t keep repeating the same awkward phrases over and over again.

The Adagio is much slower (which, it turns out, is what adagio means…) and on initial listens, it seems like there’s a lot less going on. But the slower sections allow the solo violin running through the movement to really carry a lot of emotion. The final movement returns to the faster tempo and interesting interplay between instruments.

Concerto in G Minor (reconstructed from the concerto for harpsichord and strings in F Minor, BWV 1056)

This short concerto is reconstructed from a harpsichord and strings concerto. The second movement also exists as the Sinfonia of Cantata number 156. The second movement also features the string players plucking their instruments behind the solo violin, which lends a very different sound to the piece, and keeps the focus more on the solo violin than if the strings were playing a melody with the bow.

Concerto for three violins in D major (arrangement of the concerto for three harpsichords and strings in C Major, BWV 1064)

The final work is another reconstruction based on evidence that Bach wrote his Concerto for three harpsichords using a version for three violins and strings that no longer exists. It’s a really bright concerto with a quick melody that sounds more like Mozart than Bach to me. Very enjoyable.

Next up would normally be two CDs of Harpsichord Concertos, including a different version of BWV 1056 I heard in the violin concertos. But I think I may jump into the Cantatas for a change of pace from all this orchestral music. I was originally going to listen to the whole thing in order, but I it may be more rewarding to jump around.

tags: Bach  Bach edition  books  music  review 
wed, 31-oct-2007, 17:25

proofing Genzano bread


I’ve had Daniel Leader’s Local Breads: Sourdough and whole-grain recipes from Europe’s best artisan bakers long enough to read most of the text in the book and bake three of the more than fifty bread recipes inside. The book begins with a few introductory chapters discussing the methods, ingredients and equipment you’ll need to bake the breads in the book. Subsequent chapters begin with a long section describing Leader’s experiences in a particular region of Europe, discussing the bakers, ingredients and bakeries he came across in his travels. After that, there are several recipes based on what he learned. The recipes are all scaled down for home ovens and equipment, have ingredients measured in volumetric units, U.S. and metric weights, as well as baker’s percentages. He says that he tested all the recipes using a small KitchenAid mixer, and the mixing instructions include specific details on speed and time for that mixer (as well as hand kneading instructions for most doughs). The majority of the recipes use sourdough for the fermentation, but including whole-grain in the title is a bit of a stretch since very few recipes are more than ten or twenty percent whole-grain (not a complaint, just a warning). At the end of the regional chapters is a list of frequently asked questions and answers that are tailored to the recipes. This is a nice Book 2.0 addition that would be welcome in most sophisticated baking books.

The three breads I’ve baked so far are his Old World Baguette (Paris), Buckwheat Batard (also Paris), and Whole Wheat Genzano Country Bread (Genzano, Italy). All of them were excellent, and the techniques involved were different from the recipes I’ve tried from Hamelman, Reinhart, or Beranbaum mostly because the doughs were so wet that they were difficult to shape using the techniques I’ve used in the past. If you’re going to be baking the breads from this book, you’ll probably need a good peel or a lot of parchment paper and a stand mixer.

Genzano country bread

genzano country bread

Because the recipes are taken from different regions with their own baking traditions, there is less unity in technique than in the other books mentioned. Hamelman focuses on developing gluten with as little mixing and kneading as possible to maximize flavor and longevity, and the Reinhart whole grain book I recently reviewed revolves around pre-ferments and soakers or mashes. In Leader’s book you’ll find recipes using liquid levian, dough-like starters and starters raised on different grains; long-fermenting recipes with retarted proofing and recipes that are ready to bake a few hours after you start; recipes with a lot of kneading and recipes with much less. It’s a nice variety, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the results of variations in ingredients and technique in the final bread.

My only complaint with the book is that it’s not a sewn binding, which means that the book will eventually fall apart with the hard use it experiences in the kitchen. Hamelman’s bread book suffers from the same poor quality binding, and my copy recently split after three years of use. Contrast that with Whole Grain Breads, which has a sewn binding: it lays flat on the counter and will last a lifetime. Considering that both books list for $35, it’s a shame that Norton couldn’t produce a book up to the standards set by Ten Speed Press.

One other note: I’ve used my new SuperPeel (it’s the peel in the top photo) four or five times and I’m very happy with it. Thus far I haven’t used it to pick anything up, but it’s very good at smoothly laying dough down onto my baking stone in the oven, and when the belt is properly floured, the dough doesn’t stick to it. The only issue so far is that I haven’t found the optimum belt length yet such that the belt is tight to the peel but still allows it to move easily. My previous method for handling dough was to proof the loaves on a Silpat, which is a sort of reusable silicone parchment paper. It is very durable and works, but because the bread isn’t being place directly onto the heated stone, I wasn’t getting as much oven spring as I do now with the SuperPeel. Later this week I’m planning to make pizza, and we’ll see how easy it is to pick up and put down a big pizza. That’s the true test.

tags: baking  books  bread  review 
sun, 14-oct-2007, 09:42

first Reinhart loaf

first reinhart loaf

A couple weeks ago I finished reading Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads, and baked my first loaf. I chose the whole wheat sandwich loaf even though I much prefer hearth breads because it was the teaching recipe that all the other recipes are based on. The bread was fantastic; sweet, not too dry, and with a lot of wheat flavor. And, best of all for a homemade sandwich bread, it lasted until Friday without losing any of it’s flavor or character.

I have also made the whole wheat pizza dough twice, and it’s equally good. Our previous dough recipe was Cook Illustrated’s 75-minute pizza dough, which tastes pretty good, and has sufficient gluten development to form a pizza crust, but once it’s baked with sauce, toppings and cheese, it’s not really strong enough to handle picking up the slices. The whole wheat dough was sturdy enough, and again, it had the same sweet wheat flavor and nice texture as the sandwich loaf. The recipe in the book makes five individual pizzas, which was more dough that I needed for a single large pizza (I reduced the recipe by 25% the second time around and it was perfect) so I used the leftover dough the next day to bake a small loaf in the wood stove oven. The oven was around 425°F, which is a little hotter than the baking temperatures in the book, and I should have rotated the loaf half-way through because the oven heat isn’t very even, but the loaf came out great.

baking in the Stanley

baking in the stanley cookstove

Since then I’ve made whole wheat hearth bread, which was tasty, but lost some of it’s height when I transferred it to the baking stone (I’ve got a Super Peel coming, which should help with this problem), and oat bran broom bread. Both came out great tasting with excellent crumb, and still had great texture and flavors when I finished the loaf.

The method used in almost all the breads in the book is different than any of the techniques I’ve seen in other books. Most quality breads have a long pre-ferment, either using sourdough or a lightly yeasted dough that rises slowly overnight and is mixed in on baking day, and usually feature low amounts of yeast which require long several-stage fermentation on baking day to develop gluten and the yeast. Reinhart’s method for developing the dough is to use a lightly yeasted pre-ferment as in the other recipes, plus an soaker that rests overnight at room temperature. These two doughs form the majority of the final dough. They’re mixed on baking day with the rest of the ingredients, and a relatively large amount of yeast. Since the flavors and structure has already been developed in the two overnight doughs, there’s no reason for a long fermentation on baking day. The technique also works wonders on whole grain flours, which can result in dense loaves in traditional recipes.

The result is bread with all the flavor and keeping potential of traditional recipes but you can use much higher percentages (like 100%) of whole grain flours with greater confidence that the bread will turn out, and best of all, baking day becomes a two hour process, rather than a four to six hour, multiple stage, slow fermentation procedure. I’m not going to abandon my other bread books, but it’s great to have more techniques at my disposal when deciding what kind of bread to make. And Reinhart can be commended for all the research and testing he did to develop the methods in this book.

I highly recommend Whole Grain Breads to anyone who is really interested in bread baking, especially if you’re ready to jump onto the whole grain bandwagon.

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