Two gifts were bestowed upon me this Christmastide. The first, the arrival of a subtle and finely-tuned vocal ensemble, Auriel Camerata, Deirdre Michael, Executive Director, was very welcome. This group, comprised of singers from as far away as Boston, showed great skill in their recent concert in Glenville, New York. There was no over-singing, tuning was excellent, and the selections were not only enjoyable, but inventive. Artistic Director and Conductor Derek Stannard was the impassioned leader of the flock. The repertoire was carefully chosen and adventurous.
It seems utterly puzzling that most of the greatest music of Johann Sebastian Bach barely makes it way to the concert hall. This conundrum was at the core of Simon Wainrib’s musical and entrepreneurial passion. His passing last week gave me an opportunity to reminisce about fulfilling one’s musical dreams, and my own long involvement with the Berkshire Bach Society.
A musician who undertakes an entire program of Bach’s music needs perspective, especially if the program is to be varied. Bach wrote an amazing quantity of music in an amazing variety of styles and genres, and Peter Sykes’ program was assembled with a clear sense of the big picture. There is no substitute for experience, and having played virtually all of Bach’s keyboard music, as well as much of his contemporaries’, Sykes has a clear and convincing idea (whether accurate or not, no one can know) of Bach’s intention for each piece, even each note.
Something is happening with increasing frequency in Baroque performance practice these days. A kind of third way has emerged. It would be wrong to call it a half-way house; it’s something more like a suite of rooms each with its own individual slant. The poles are a die-hard kind of historical accuracy, rigid in its orthodoxy, and now pretty much a retro activity, or large opulent orchestras playing Baroque music, if they play it at all, with a 19th-century approach. What seems to be nascent these days is a kind of third way: modern orchestras, even large ones, performing with a much greater sense of tonal and rhetorical knowledge of 18th century style. Nikolaus Harnoncourt started this when he recorded the Beethoven symphonies with a modern orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, but used brass instruments which were tricked out in the 18th century way. It has continued, nay flourished, in the 21st century, especially in the symphonies of Beethoven again, where its main defenders have been Osmo Vänskä with the Minnesota Orchestra and Paavo Järvi with the Chamber Orchestra of Bremen. These are players using the modern style but with a believable, not-manufactured Baroque sound. Most recently Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have released a full set of Beethoven symphonies where something of this third way may be heard. These forces have also recorded the Bach Passions and the Brandenburg concertos with modern instruments, but sounding stylistically informed.
The Berkshire Bach Society pursued its lively and varied work of furthering the legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach in our region with a program focused on Bach the organist. This year’s programs have concentrated on different aspects, some rather unusual, of Bach’s multifarious activities and output. The first explored gypsy dances and improvisations and their influence on the music of Bach, Telemann, and others — of course of a secular nature. The second was a choral concert devoted to Bach’s music for the Thomanerschule in Leipzig. Of course the Brandenburgs didn’t fail to appear at New Year’s. Last week’s program, although it involved a well-known aspect of Bach’s work, his genius as a virtuoso and composer for the organ, brought out some elements we often tend to ignore: the zest, even mischief in his arrangements of Vivaldi concerti, and his sense of humor. One got more of an impression of Bach’s personality than one can find often in his best-known masterpieces.
Mr. Cooper, who is best known for his zesty performances of Bach’s chamber music, is also a musicologist of no mean accomplishment. Besides preparing scholarly editions of harpsichord music, he has been, as of late, in the reconstruction business: finishing or recreating works by masters from mere fragments. Last year he reconstructed the violin part to Mozart’s Adagio Quasi FantasiaK.396/385f from an extant five measures in Mozart’s hand. He has also reconstructed the original cadenza for Beethoven’s B-flat piano concerto. Tonight, we heard a United States première of Mr. Cooper’s extensive reconstruction of a wedding cantata by J.S. Bach, listed in the Schmieder’s catalogue as #216.
A few days later a chance to revel in Strauss’s incidental music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, conducted by the youngster of the conducting fellows, Alexander Prior. This young man made the music come out. The performance was full of character, each movement very well sung by the instruments. One could hear the words they were saying. His conducting was impetuous, but he also found space in the tender music that I would not have expected from one so young. Sarah Silver was absolutely splendid in the solo violin as was Caleb van der Swaagh playing the cello solo. I had always thought of this piece as “fluff”, but this time it moved me. And did they ever play for him.