Two days of Bach resonates with audiences.
This last weekend at Kings Place has been devoted to J. S. Bach, courtesy of the Feinstein Ensemble. Individual members of the group have explored music for solo instruments, such as the violin partitas/sonatas and the cello suites, but the two evenings for the larger ensemble featured a combined instrumental and dance presentation of The Musical Offering on Friday and a performance of all six Brandenburg Concerti on Saturday.
The Musical Offering arose from a dare to Bach by Frederick II of Prussia: the king provided the composer with a musical theme, and asked Bach, in an exchange of letters, to write a series of canons, fugues and ricercars for keyboard that incorporated it.
While it is assumed that, with the exception of the trio sonata, the pieces were written for keyboard, as Bach didn’t specify an instrument, many groups have taken the opportunity to vary the instrumentation, as did the Feinstein Ensemble, deploying recorder, string basses, violins a cello and a viola to ring the timbral changes. Further augmentation was achieved by dancers from Images Ballet Company, who, for many of the items, danced a series of choreographed ‘exercises’, presenting a more outward facing version of the kind of Bach-accompanied workouts that are popular at the barre.
What resulted from the combination was a bit of a curate’s egg. It’s debatable whether a public performance of the pieces actually works anyway. Firstly, some of them are quite brief (albeit that, in an act of bravura, Bach also included two lengthy ricercars and a full trio sonata for flute, violin, and basso continuo), and the whole business of staging them seems like overblowing such casual salon pieces – notwithstanding the fierce intelligence behind their construction. But mainly it’s that, with the possible exception of the trio sonata, you feel as though you’re intruding on a private epistolary conversation: that Bach really intended these pieces as a clever musical response Frederick could play for himself (the presence of some ‘riddle fugues’ that needed to be worked out by the player would seem to support this), and either, like Frederick, playing them yourself, or listening to a recorded performance at home feels more appropriate. With some of the shorter pieces, the ballet seemed to add not only to the fuss of presentation (especially with all the tuning required of different instruments for a piece lasting only a couple of minutes), but in and of itself it felt dry, with no story to tell other than the admittedly excellently delivered figures – emphasising the abstract, academic quality of both music and dance, rather than leavening each of them. There was also a bit of a problem over tuning: in some of the two and three-part canons the intonation wasn’t quite on point, and when instruments are that exposed, it is noticeable.
The best pieces were the lengthier ones either for solo harpsichord or larger ensembles: the trio sonata and the two ricercars that book-ended the concert. The synergy both between players and with the dancers in these worked well, such that the pieces took flight and told a story of sorts. The row of dancers peeling off into separate but echoed sets of figures as each iteration of the canon appeared was particularly effective, and the ‘five graces’ group at the close of the first movement of the trio sonata was a moment of charm and elegance.
Saturday evening’s performance of the Brandenburgs was a much beefier and more satisfactory experience altogether, and it highlighted the most enjoyable aspect of the Feinstein Ensemble’s modus operandi: their minimal use of instruments. Deploying one string instrument to a part in a piece where they also sit with woodwind or brass brings a whole difference of texture to a work. Where, with other performances, there might be a whole section of, say, violins; you might think a single instrument would be swamped, but this is far from the case – clarity of line stands out, and the homogeneity of ensemble sections is never lost.
“The Musical Offering arose from a dare to Bach…”
This quality was palpable from the opening bars of the first concerto – the longest and most lavishly scored (including two splendidly vulgar natural horns, fresh from the hunt, and a teeny violino piccolo). Each of the movements was full of excitement and charm by turns, and the fourth, multisectional movement in which Bach contrasts different instrumental combinations with changing mood was brilliantly executed, with some splendidly robust action in the low strings for the polacca, an elegant approach to the repeats of the menuet, and some breathtaking passages of double speed.
Concerto No. 6 for low strings (including a pair of violas da gamba) opened with some pleasurably intense sawing punctuated by an impressive display of busy and percussive passages from the violas. The slow movement was both slick and mellifluous, and the final movement, despite being taken at a measured pace, was nonetheless full of energy. Sadly, some of the intonation problems present in the previous evening seemed to return for this concerto, and there was just a feeling, in places, that the tuning wasn’t quite aligned.
There’s a joyful crispness to the opening movement of the fourth concerto as two recorders and a violin dance their way across the underlay of strings and continuo, and, very much on form, the ensemble highlighted all this, as well as bringing to the second movement an account that was both elegant and mannered. The symbiotic relationship between the soloists in the third movement manifested itself in the faultlessly controlled tone of their interactions.
The third concerto was executed at a moderate pace compared to some performances, and the change in dynamic emphasis as the concertino group weaved its way in and out of the all-string texture was deftly handled. The layout for the concerto – an arc of players – was inspired, as it allowed one to hear the way Bach constantly reallocates the material across the parts in a kind of musical pass the parcel. The violin embellishment of the two stark chords of the second movement was a special little pre-Easter egg.
The concertino group in the fifth concerto consists of a violin, a (transverse) flute and a harpsichord – the latter having a split personality as it acts as both soloist and continuo. As with the fourth concerto, the impressively synergetic account (containing some achingly suspenseful decorations from the flute) described a complete understanding of form – and full marks to Robin Bigwood for a furiously accurate and exciting harpsichord cadenza. The interweaving of the three instruments in the second movement became a flawlessly executed dance, and the subsequent gigue movement was as light and airy as you could wish for.
No one really knows why Bach presented the trumpeter of the second concerto’s concertino group with the challenge of playing consistently at the very top of the instrument’s range; perhaps pure mischief, or a simple stubborn quality of knowing it was just possible, so ‘es muß durchgeführt werden’. In any event, the peerless David Blackadder delivered it with both accuracy and élan, working with James Eastaway (oboe), Martin Feinstein (recorder) and Miki Takahashi (violin) to deliver an account that was full of zip and ping in the outer two movements. The other three soloists presented a beguilingly calm second movement full of well judged dynamic leans over a quiet, rocking cello.
It’s unusual, these days, to hear all six concerti in a single sitting, but this performance was very much worth the effort.