Sunday, August 13, 2017

ABS Presents a “Bach Family” Program

Last night the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) hosted the penultimate program to be presented in the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival. (The final program, the second performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor, will also take place in the SFCM Concert Hall this afternoon.) The title of last night’s offering was Bach & Sons, and the second half was devoted to those three sons that are probably the best known of Bach’s descendants. In order of birth, these are Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian. The first half of the program consisted of a miscellany of short pieces by “Bach the father,” divided into a set of “transcriptions” and opening sinfonia movements from the cantatas.

The first set of that first half was listed as “Transcriptions of Keyboard Works,” which was not quite accurate. The opening selection was the six-part ricercar from the BWV 1079 collection known as The Musical Offering. As can be seen from the first page of this piece in its first publication, Bach did not notate this the same way as any of his keyboard fugues, instead assigning a separate staff for each of the six voices with no indication of instrumentation:

The first page of the first publication of Bach's six-part ricercar (from IMSLP, public domain)

Last night this was performed as a string sextet with Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy on violin, Katherine Kyme on viola, Kenneth Slowik on gamba, William Skeen on cello, and Steven Lehning on violone. This made for a more bread-and-butter account than that of Anton Webern’s more outré approach to orchestration; but there was still a sense that this music was conceived more for intellectual exercise than for performance.

The other two pieces in this section were, however, actual transcriptions of music composed for organ. Unfortunately, no credit was given to those responsible for the transcriptions. The more familiar of the two works was the BWV 582 passacaglia and fugue in C minor, played by a string ensemble conducted by ABS Music Director Jeffery Thomas.

For better or worse, my generation grew up on full-orchestra arrangements of this music by Ottorino Respighi, Leopold Stokowski, and Eugene Ormandy. (We also grew up with Virgil Fox showboating the organ itself from instruments with gargantuan consoles.) In these arrangements excessive attention to orchestra color tended to obscure what Bach was actually doing. This account, on the other hand, was “all about Bach;” and it was interesting to see that most of the upper-voice parts of the fugue was played by three solo instruments. Thomas then conducted the BWV 680 chorale prelude on “Wir gläuben all an einen Gott” (the German text of the Nicene Creed), which was a bit problematic due to the chorale theme of this “Organ Mass” being kept in the shadows.

The cantata sinfonias were distinguished by the diversity of their respective instrumentations. The most unique was probably the solo viola d’amore (played by Blumenstock) in the sinfonia for BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (step upon the path of faith). However, since the only wind instrument in the transcriptions was a continuo bassoon, the appearances of both recorder (Hanneke van Proosdij) and oboe (Debra Nagy) were most welcome for the change in sonority.

The most amusing (and slightly ironic) offering was a performance of the sinfonia for BWV 29, Wir danken dir, Gott (we thank Thee, God), prepared by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Bach conceived this sinfonia as an organ concerto movement, which he created as a reworking of the opening movement of his BWV 1006 partita in E major for solo violin. Tafelmusik then reconceived Bach’s conception as a violin concerto, restoring the virtuoso demands on the violin (played last night by Mealy) to their rightful place!

The second half of the program began with Sebastian’s eldest son, Friedemann, who was represented by an F major string symphony (entry 67 in the Falck catalog), which was given the nickname “Dissonances.” It amounts to a clever display of how dissonant intervals may be introduced (often very strikingly) and then resolved. Nevertheless, there was some sense that Friedemann kept the display going too long after he had made his point.

Christian’s D major string trio (played by Blumenstock, Mealy, and Slowik) was a model of brevity. This was, after all, the Bach son that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met. Listening to this trio, one can appreciate its transitional role in the emergence of that “classical style” that would subsequently be refined by Mozart and Joseph Haydn.

In many ways Emanuel was just as significant (if not more so) in this transition. (Beethoven supposedly admired Emanuel far more than Sebastian.) He was represented last night by his Wq 168 flute concerto in A major (Wq 168), presumably written to be played by Frederick the Great. Adolph von Menzel created a splendid painting one century after the fact, which shows Frederick with his flute accompanied by Emanuel at the harpsichord:

Concert for flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci by Aldoph von Menzel (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night’s soloist was Sandra Miller, giving an account that accounted for technical versatility and expressiveness in equal measure. This was probably one of the first times (but, according to at least one of my sources, not the first) that “mesto” was included as an “affective” adjective in a tempo description; and Miller gave due recognition to the significance of that identifier. Curiously, this concerto also exists in versions for harpsichord solo and cello solo; but it is clear that Frederick was the driving force behind its creation.

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