After the lean precision and purity of John Eliot Gardiner’s Brandenburg Concertos, the BBC Proms’ Bach Day concluded with a trawl through murkier waters: Bach seen through the eyes and ears of later (and lesser) composers.
The transition was buffered by organist David Briggs playing the great Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582 as the composer intended, in its original version for organ.
It was downhill from there, with Briggs’ playing various garish arrangements, a tour through Bach’s most famous tunes, and a second concert that saw Percy Grainger’s tinkling music box version of “Sheep May safely graze” (Blithe Bells) at the bottom of the grassy slope. We were to hear this melody three times during the two evening concerts, while Air on a G String and the Chorale Prelude “Wachet Auf” made two appearances each.
Bach himself was of course an inveterate re-worker of his own and others’ works but Bach arranging Bach or Vivaldi is a different matter from Bach messed around with by composers of lesser worth, even when they are as loved and revered as Malcolm Sargent and Henry Wood.
You didn’t have to be a purist to find the evening a good deal less appealing than the English Baroque Soloists’ earlier musical offerings, although there’s a certain magnificence to Stokowski’s large-scale Toccata and Fugue, provided you can banish thoughts of Disney’s Fantasia, and an irresistible charm in Sargent’s lush arrangement of the famous Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 and Granville Bantock’s similar treatment of the “Wachet Auf” tune.
William Walton’s 1940 ballet The Wise Virgins, drawn from various cantatas, has undeniable loveliness and Respighi’s orchestration of the same Passacaglia and Fugue we’d heard in its purer form earlier, is masterly.
All was played by the Royal Philharmonic under Andrew Litton with great charm and affection and what made the evening was the inclusion of two world premieres, bringing the tradition of Bach re-interpretation bang up to date (to be fair, David Briggs had already premiered his own arrangement of the Orchestral Suite No.3 in the earlier recital).
Alissa Firsova’s five minute Bach Allegro , a transcription of the final movement of the Sonata in G minor for viola da gamba, was reminiscent of one of those brief, blazing celebrations by Stravinsky, while Tarik O’Regan’s Latent Manifest, an exploration of “intimations” of the Adagio of the Violin Sonata No. 3, was the closest we came to hearing an original work for some hours.