Saturday, December 31, 2016

In Your Dreams: A bedtime serenade – The Bach Arioso

By Geoffrey Dean

A few months ago, roughly coinciding with our daughter Vera’s arrival, I put together a playlist of classical pieces that I considered suitably sleep-inducing. After mining my own memory for appropriate selections, I enriched our nighttime listening repertoire with a few “readymade” albums, such as “More Bedtime Serenades.” This compilation came up as I searched for one of my favorite pieces by J. S. Bach, the “Arioso,” which is perhaps best-known and most widely performed today as a cello solo with piano accompaniment. This is the version heard on More Bedtime Serenades, in an interpretation by Janos Starker that to me brings home the sense of Arioso as “almost an aria” – a piece striving towards full-fledged aria status, and almost getting there. Starker’s is a lyrical interpretation that still retains a hint of the spoken quality that was also an important element of Baroque music and the “rhetoric” behind it.
    Starker from More Bedtime Serenades:

Two versions of this piece have come down to us from Bach’s time. One is the opening Sinfonia from his sacred cantata, BWV 156, first performed in Leipzig, most likely on January 23, 1729. Here’s a recording of a live performance of it on Baroque oboe, the intended solo instrument for this version:

    (Bach regularly appropriated movements from his earlier instrumental concertos to serve as sinfonias in his cantatas, as the 19 examples in this album illustrate – I recommend that you come back to these later*.)

Bach later created a series of keyboard concertos that were also based on his earlier concertos for violin or oboe. The earlier versions are now lost, giving scholars a lot to do in reconstructing them from Bach’s keyboard versions from the 1730s. As the slow movement of his keyboard (i.e., harpsichord) concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, the Arioso sounds like this:

    In the reconstructed violin concerto, Izhak Perlman plays it like this:

(from 3’59).
    It is also lovely in this flute version:

(from 3’11).
    These versions both feature a solo instrument with strings, and might be considered reasonably “authentic” – they take the cantata sinfonia and the keyboard concerto as points of departure, and do not venture very far from these models. Then there are versions like this one, for modern symphony orchestra, much expanded from the intimate instrumental forces that Bach would have had at his disposal:

If Stokowski’s version multiplies the cello’s sound, Ormandy’s amplifies the violin’s, creating the effect of another “Air on the G string”:

Notice Ormandy’s nod to the popular cello version at 2’39-3’’20, as the mass of violins yields to a lone cello soloist.

If you search on Youtube under “Bach Arioso,” the first result, with close to 570,000 views, is this anonymous performance of the cello-and-piano version:

    If you prefer to see as well as hear your Bach, try

with cello and organ. Or, if you’re like us, you’ll just loop the Starker performance, letting it serenade you from bedtime to breakfast.

* [Editor’s Note: For convenience, here’s the video box for the link to the 19 sinfonias:

Copyright © 2016 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. I've always loved the Arioso. I first heard this work in the form of oboe and strings. Thanks for the great examples of how Bach refashioned his own material for other combinations of instruments.

  2. Thank you! I didn't Know the Arioso, despite decades of Bach-ing. The tour of Bach retreads is also a rare treat.
    It'll take a while to listen to all the examples. So far, I'll take the Starker.