Ich habe genug. BWV 82/82a

In August I read Paul Elie's entertaining book Re-inventing Bach. I found the book both fascinating and irritating, but it inspired me to finally make an effort to listen or play my way through all of Bach's works. Many I already know extremely well, but I'm pretty sure that there is a lot of Bach out there that I have never heard.

Where to start? There is so much of Bach that I love, but I decided to start with the piece and the voice that inspired me to start the Bach challenge - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Ich habe genug. The work was originally written for bass and oboe, and was performed on the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary in February 1727.

The Feast of the Purification celebrates Mary's first visit to the temple after the birth of Jesus, and her meeting with the elderly Simeon, who on seeing Jesus and recognising the Messiah, recites the Nunc Dimittis "Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word".

Ich habe genug (I am content, or I have enough, or possibly even I have had enough - this is not necessarily a negative, more that life can't get any better than it is at this moment). The choice of bass voice was probably chosen to reflect Simeon. But a slightly later arrangement, which was probably first performed in 1731, used a soprano instead of bass, and substituted a flute for the oboe. By substituting a female voice, the work immediately becomes more universal. This is not just Simeon's take on events, this is Everyman or woman encountering the other.

The use of the flute also produces a much warmer effect, you lose the tension of the taut sound of the oboe, which perhaps is reflecting the human experience - a desire to yield to death at the right time, and yet a yearning to stay in this world. I can find very few recordings of the alternate BWV 82a version, but here's one with Natalie Dessay.

Oddly most of the well-known female recordings revert back to the same instrumentation, and even key of the original bass recording. So combining the lighter sound of the female voice with the darkness of the oboe. Listen to one of the best known recordings:

Which brings me back to the start of the challenge - Paul Elie's book, and the American mezzo-soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who I'd never heard of. Lorraine was best known as a singer of Handel, but she made a few Bach recordings:- one recording of his cantatas, and one of items from the Anna Magdalena Notebook (excerpts from Ich habe genug can also be found in it). One of the most beautiful was her recording of BWV 82.
Hunt Lieberson had a rather unconventional career. She started off as a viola player, and became principal viola with San Jose symphony. Aged 26, she decided to change career, and studied voice. Her career began aged nearly 30 in 1984, and she made her operatic debut the following year after the enfant terrible of opera, the director, Peter Sellers, noted for his unconventional productions cast her in a production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Sadly Lorraine's career was to be cut tragically short when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died in 2006, having nursed her sister through the same illness only a few years before.

Hunt Lieberson's final appearance was in Amsterdam. It was a performance of Ich habe genug; but produced by Peter Sellers it was always going to be unconventional. Indeed it had almost caused a fight in Lincoln Center in 2001. Sellers' juxtaposed two cantatas BWV 82 and BWV 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut. During Mein Herze schwimmt, Lieberson appeared on stage in a kimono, as Sellers attempted to show the struggles of a woman recovering from attempted suicide. It was Ich habe genug that caused the real controversy though, as Hunt Lieberson was now dressed in a surgical gown, attached to IV drips, a woman at the end of her life.

Although, as far as I know, Lieberson was well at this point, it was too much for audiences to take, there was heckling in Paris, and a near fight in New York, although the reception at the Barbican seems to have been positive.
The final curtain. The last appearance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Amsterdam, 2005
Lieberson's last ever performance was playing the dying woman in a production in Amsterdam, and this time, she was indeed dying. Just a year away from the inevitable; and yet, I think, that both she and Peter Sellers were quite right to use this work to mark the end of her professional life. Bach is the sort of composer who crosses boundaries, he can be a very intimate part of your life, and Simeon's own tranquil acceptance, his welcoming of death to turn it into a "good" death as exemplified in Ich habe genug must have felt very relevant and personal to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Who better than Bach, what better than music, to turn darkness into light?


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