A Season of Baroque Instrumental Music in New York—Mostly Bach

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Carnegie Hall
Weill Recital Hall
Thursday, February 20, 2014, 7.30 pm
Fabio Biondi, Violin
Kenneth Weiss, Harpsichord

J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata in G Major, BWV 1021
J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata No. 6 in G Major, BWV 1019
J. S. Bach – Violin Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, BWV 1017
J. S. Bach – Italian Concerto, BWV 971
P. A. Locatelli – Sonata in D Minor, Op. 6, No. 12
Encore: J. S. Bach – Cantabile, ma non poco Adagio from Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord in G Major, BWV 1019a

Words like “Lively,” “energetic,” and “idiosyncratic” are understatements when it comes to the fiery interpretations of Baroque ensemble music—above all Vivaldi’s—Fabio Biondi has achieved with his virtuoso string orchestra, Europa Galante. In this capacity he comfortably alternates, in true Baroque fashion, between his role as leader and, when called for, as soloist. Last February 20, he appeared as a soloist with Kenneth Weiss, great New York-based harpsichordist, for a program consisting mostly of Bach, with one work by an Italian native, the Bergamasque Pietro Antonio Locatelli. Once one heard a movement or two of Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major, it became clear that the program was founded on an argument—that Bach’s Violin Sonatas, which he wrote around 1725-6 at Cöthen, are essentially Italianate in character—no surprise, in fact. Mr. Biondi’s brilliance and warm Sicilian temperament blazed out in every bar, with strongly inflected phrases and dramatic pauses between them. Not everyone appreciates Biondi’s intense musicianship. For my part, I admire it and very much enjoy his performances of Vivaldi and other Italians. In this concert, however, I found his playing mannered and distracting. Of course we all know that Bach looked to Italian models in his instrumental music, above all Vivaldi, of whom Förkel said that his music “taught him to think musically.” This comes out well enough in most good performances, but Biondi’s playing seemed exaggerated here. Kenneth Weiss carried on with solidity and flow, providing the violinist with the needed support without becoming a fully complicit partner. Sgr. Biondi came into his own with his truly brilliant playing of the Locatelli Sonata. In this his style was entirely appropriate, and the music seemed both impressive and substantial, a worthy companion to the great German master. Perhaps it would have been better if had played one on the Bach sonatas in a program of mostly Italian music. This is not to say that Biondi’s playing in the Bach was not exciting, interesting, and expressive.

Kenneth Weiss took the stage by himself for Bach’s Italian Concerto for solo harpsichord. His tempo in the first movement was steady and spacious, projecting a sense of the grandeur of the music, as well as its high spirits. With only rhythm and timing at his disposal, Weiss brought a wealth of expression to this generous music. He played the mournful second movement at a proper andante, which allowed for expressiveness but avoided the lugubrious. The final movement charged off in joyous energy, but kept its feet on the ground. There was no risk of a tumble here, and so much the better. One could only admire Mr. Weiss’s sense of proportion and his respect for the music in this rich and satisfying reading of a beloved work.

Kenneth Weiss

Kenneth Weiss

Salon/Sanctuary Concerts
Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium
Mount Vernon Hotel Museum

J. S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier
Kenneth Weiss, Harpsichord

Less than a fortnight later (March 2), Kenneth Weiss appeared in another important program of J. S. Bach’s music in the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium on East 61st Street, the entire second book of his Well-Tempered Clavier. From his own program note, Mr. Weiss’s relationship to this essential body of work is grounded both in his life as a musician and in more personal feelings. There is the experience of playing one of the preludes and fugues every day, a practice many keyboard players follow to expand their musicianship and to preserve mental balance. There is also the task of preparing the entire book for public performance, which is a greater physical and intellectual challenge, because the player has to maintain total concentration not for five minutes, but for over two hours, as well as an act of reverence, because it is in works like Bach’s “48” that music grows into a sort of secular religion. Some believe that in music there is nothing more we really need, except perhaps Bach’s Art of Fugue, Musical Offering, and Clavier-Übung Book III. In Kenneth Weiss’s view, this implies anything but a restricted musical life, since he likens Bach’s double traversal of the twelve keys to a voyage around the world, offering a multitude of landscapes, languages, and dialects. As he says, “Bach imagined and created these landscapes and I was happy to spend years following his map of unknown lands. […] Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is a gift to humanity. It can teach and nourish us and inspire and heal us. Through generations, through births, losses, loves and deaths it stays there, intact, ready for all to grasp and cherish it.” In this recital, Mr. Weiss was both creating a monumental public performance, as intimate as the auditorium was, and allowing his audience to share something of his personal experience in his daily private playing.

Weiss’s humanistic perspective is in keeping with the broad aims of the admirable organization that presented it, Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, founded in 2009 by Jessica Gould, which specializes in interdisciplinary events combining opera, theater, film, and dance. These are often intended to illuminate historical issues “through the prism of music.” In this context, the Well Tempered is such a landmark that it speaks for itself and by itself. Any contextual adjuncts would have only been a distraction from this incomparably great music. This performance was all about concentration and singleness of purpose. In order to maintain this concentration, Mr. Weiss paused briefly for a minute or two at moments, and he took his intermission at a point later in the series than what was indicated in the program.

Kenneth Weiss’ playing of the preludes and fugues was restrained and monumental, but nonetheless replete with intellectual insights and intimate moments of feeling, in keeping with the public and private aspects of that particular performative act. The suite-like qualities of the preludes in the Second Book open up Bach’s style to a certain degree of Empfindsamkeit, as well as courtly dance-rhythms (e.g. Prelude IV in c# minor, in 9/8 time)—which Weiss fully expressed, while remaining firmly grounded in the musical equivalent of edle Einfalt und stille Größe, the aesthetic ideal which Winckelmann first propounded only five years after J. S. Bach’s death. In a musical context “stille” (“quiet”) would refer to a purity of vision and freedom from distracting ornament. Nonetheless, Weiss’s tempi, in the fugues as well (e.g. the C minor) as the preludes, allowed for an ebb and flow which not only shaped the phrases and movements most eloquently, but provided a window for expressive feeling, as in his playing of the C Major and c# minor preludes, for example.

The program notes by Kenneth Weiss and Richard Langham Smith were taken from the CD set of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier just released by Satirino Records (in France. The box will be introduced in the United States in autumn.) In his essay, Smith stresses aspects of the preludes and fugues other than the familiar—and usually misunderstood—issue of equal temperament. There are matters of technique and playing style as well. Bach’s tuning abilities were renowned, and it is thought that he tuned empirically, rather than follow a specific theory. The modern double manual harpsichord in New York, was, like the great Ruckers-Taskin instrument Weiss played at the Cité de la Musique in Paris and used in the Satirino recording, tuned by the system published by Georg Andreas Sorge in 1744. In this, one could appreciate the difference between the open, harmonious C Major, and the more bristly remote keys, like C# Major, as well as the character of the individual keys in between. This is one aspect of Weiss’s performance which is actually better appreciated in the repeated listenings allowed by a recording than in concert, but it certainly enhanced the color and character of the music. (I’ll review the recording separately, but, in a nutshell, the set is a must for anyone seriously interested music, not to mention the version any music-lover should have as his or her primary version of the 48.)

As the opportunity for Mr. Weiss’s fellow New Yorkers to hear his traversal of the Second Book in the wake of his landmark performances of Bach’s keyboard works, this concert was as important as any that has been heard this season. The pleasant, if somewhat uneven acoustics and the intimate atmosphere of this modern addition to the Mt. Vernon Hotel Museum were especially congenial to the event and aided concentration. Jessica Gould and her colleagues at Salon/Sanctuary Concerts can be proud of having made the concert possible.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Zankel Hall
Carnegie Hall
Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 7.30pm

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
George Kallweit, Concertmaster
Xenia Löffler, Oboe

J. S. Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major
J.C. Bach – Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings, and Basso Continuo in F Minor
C. P. E. Bach – String Symphony No. 5 in B Minor, Wq. 182
C. P. E. Bach – Concerto for Oboe, Strings, and Basso Continuo in E-Flat Major, Wq. 165
J. C. Bach – Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6

The reputation of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin was enough to sell out Zankel Hall. One could feel the mood of affectionate anticipation as the audience of fans awaited the musicians’ arrival on stage. The musicians, with the usual exceptions, perform standing, and this gives them plenty of room to move, to make subtle or not so subtle gestures to one another or themselves, and even to dance a bit—in weaving a complex web of signals that keep this group together, not only in attack, but in expression, and this does not appear to be focused on a single leader, at least on this occasion, when two or three, including the soloists, exchanged leading functions. Simply keeping time and coming in on the right beat is not enough for these musicians, who have cultivated their own particular relaxed but perfect unanimity and genial elegance of style.

This program was a visit with the Bach family, beginning with a central work of Johann Sebastian, his First Orchestral Suite, then pairing off his two most prominent sons, Carl Philipp Emmanuel and Johann Christian. The Akademie played the Orchestral Suite at generally quick, but flexible tempi, maintaining a certain nervous energy, while giving themselves room to breathe and sing. Balances were warm and cohesive in Zankel Hall, which I find myself liking better and better for period bands and solo instruments. Attacks could be smooth or edgy, as called for. The wind solos were especially graceful in tone and phrasing. Their performance transformed Carnegie Hall’s bomb shelter auditorium into one of young Prince Leopold’s drawing rooms at Cöthen. There was little of the grandeur lent to the music by early- to mid-twentieth century conductors. Their spirit was natural, unpretentious, but always elegant.

There was less of a jump between J. S. in this style and J. C., the most galant of the Bachs. This keyboard concerto in F Minor, written in Berlin, before the twenty-year-old composer, still under the influence of his much older brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel, left Germany for  Milan. The dark minor key and intense mood changes recall a pre-classical mode he left behind in maturity and point the way back to his father, in some degree. Raphael Alpermann played the harpsichord with eloquence, now blending with the ensemble, then standing out. Then followed C. P. E.’s String Symphony in B Minor, which he composed in the early 1770s while at Hamburg, on commission of none other than the Viennese, Gottfried van Swieten, who, as patron of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, encouraged them to look back to the models of J. S. Bach and Handel. This work embodies the psychological chiaroscuro we associate with the composer and not entirely assimilated as his own by his younger brother, but it has its share of courtly elegance as well, and this was the aspect the Berliners inclined towards, I thought. On the other hand, they hardly neglected the feeling in the work, which is even somewhat redolent of the Sturm und Drang, as in the final Presto, with its imposing massed string chords.

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Johann Christian Bach

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Johann Christian Bach

After intermission, Xenia Löffler played C. P. E.’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings in E Flat Major, which he composed in 1765. Some might even be surprised by the galant, classical tone of the opening movement—another feature to bring the two brothers together. C. P. E. wrote entirely within the oboe’s native idiom, visiting its full range of capabilities, from the lyric and plaintive to pert, rustic, almost trumpet-like calls. Xenia Löffler managed all of this with virtuosity and an impressive gamut of tone color, ranging from the lyrical to the throaty. The concert closed with J. C.’s Symphony in G Minor, a full-blooded Sturm und Drang work, composed in 1770. A pair of horns appeared on stage for this, adding a handsome raspy texture to the middle voices, occasional spirited outbursts, and some dark, brooding growls to boot. Oboes were also prominent in the scoring, requiring more of Ms. Löffler’s virtuosity.

The concert made its point—the close ties among seemingly different members of the Bach family, and the ways in which they shared J. S.’s Baroque legacy, Empfindsamkeit, Classicism, and Sturm und Drang. The taste of the players seems to gravitate more towards elegance than expression, and as delightful as the evening was, I missed a potential full measure of C. P. E.’s intensity and fire. A splendid encore took us out of the Bach circle to early Haydn: the Finale of his Symphony No. 3 in G Major, an impeccably crafted movement based on the theme best known from the final movement of Mozart’s C Major Symphony, K. 551, the “Jupiter.” Both the works in the second half of the program were hinting ahead to Haydn and Mozart, and our brilliant friends from Berlin left us with the key to a whole new program.

Wieland Kuijken, Arthur Haas, Eva Legêne. Photo Stanley Dorn.

Wieland Kuijken, Arthur Haas, Eva Legêne. Photo Stanley Dorn.

Virtuoso Music of the Baroque
Gotham Early Music Scene
Thursday, March 13 at 7.30 pm
Saint Paul and Saint Andrew Church

Eva Legêne, recorder
Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba
Arthur Haas, harpsichord

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697 – 1764) – Sonata No. 2 in E minor for recorder and basso continuo
François Couperin (1668-1733) – Pieces de violes avec la basse chifre: Suite no I, in E Minor
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Pièces de Clavecin in G: Les Sauvages – Les Triolets – L’Egiptienne
Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) – Trio Sonata in D Major Op.2, no.8 for alto recorder, viola da gamba, and basso continuo
Carl Philip Emanuel Bach – Sonata in D major, Wq 83, H505 for recorder and obbligato harpsichord
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Sonata in G Major, BWV 1027 for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) – Trio sonata in A minor RV 86 for alto recorder, viola da gamba and continuo

The last concert I’ll discuss here was an all-too-rare and perhaps final appearance in this country of three of the greats of Baroque music. No one who has not heard Eva Legêne play can imagine how beautiful the recorder can be. On her lips, there seems to be a direct connection, founded in the diaphragm, between her breath and the instrument. The richness and resonance of sound she can produce is astounding. The warmth Wieland Kuijken produces from his viola da gamba is equally unique, and Arthur Haas’s colorful palette and springy rhythms—a style quite different from that of his Juilliard colleague, Kenneth Weiss—are a marvel to hear. This concert—in spite of the less than lively acoustic of the carpeted church—offered a banquet for the ear along with the deep understanding and expressiveness of the musicians.

In this program, the Bachs remain with us, at least Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel, together with some of their French and Italian contemporaries, to whom J. S. Bach was totally open, as in his Orchestral Suite à la française mentioned above. The first half was entirely French, with pieces by Couperin for gamba and Rameau for harpsichord bookended by a pair of Leclair sonatas for recorder and continuo. The second half comprised the Bachs, fils et père in that order, and a work by an Italian often mined by J. S., Antonio Vivaldi.

Eva Legêne carried the beautiful, melancholy theme of Leclair Sonata in E Minor with singing continuity and rich tone. Her masterful control of ornament gave them an integral role in unfolding the melody. There was no trace of breathlessness or rushing in the lively second movement. The Couperin viola da gamba solo suite, also in E Minor, proved deeply moving for Wieland Kuijken’s beauty of sound and meditative expression. The Rameau suite showed Arthur Haas’s extraordinary ability to create character with the sounds available to his instrument, in this case a good double-manual harpsichord. He succeeded in inhabiting Rameau’s imaginative world with the ease of the great expert in the composer that he is.

The Sonata for Viola da Gamba by J. S. Bach begins with a theme of divine simplicity, which Wieland Kuijken sang out with focussed expression as well as a sense of the long line. Even if some consider it a Wagnerian anachronism, the long line extends from the beginning to the end of that first movement. There follows a lively movement very much in the spirit of its cousins in the violin sonatas discussed at the beginning of this article. In bold contrast to the first movement this second goes off in different melodic and harmonic directions.

The final work, the Vivaldi Sonata, like the Locatelli so brilliantly played by Fabio Biondi, clinched the concert’s premise, the Baroque’s taste for brilliant virtuosity, one shared throughout Europe, as a means to ensure the professional musician a place among his amateur patrons. Some of these may well have been able to play the most difficult passages with aplomb, but this music remains in essence a dialogue between the virtuosic professional and the capable amateur. These three great musicians led us through the heart of the Baroque with much more than the virtuosity they promised.

This Gotham Early Music event was amply attended by stalwarts of period performance who seemed to go back to the days of Noah Greenberg, or even the Welches, so memorably celebrated by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim—a notable contrast to the younger, well-heeled crowd at the Salon/Sanctuary evening and the devotees at Zankel Hall. The early music world of New York seems to have a diversity worthy of the city itself.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

A tip for our readers: How to get the most out of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review for the Arts.
What if I hate reading on computer screens, even tablets?
We get occasional inquiries from readers about whether we plan to launch a print edition of our arts journals. The answer is that we've given it some thought, and we're still thinking about it.
It is not only our older readers who object to reading them online. There are even some millennials who would rather read from paper. One of our readers got the simple idea of using the sites as sophisticated tables of contents. She prints out each article on three-hole paper and files them in a loose-leaf album. I've devoted a lot of time to finding the very best print and pdf facility there is. Just click on one of the icons at the top right of the article and print!
Click here to make your tax-deductible donation to The Arts Press, publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review. Or click on the notice in the sidebar. The Arts Press is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Arts Press must be made payable to“Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.