Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Bach and forth…

Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.

It is something quite astonishing, this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on – although I am fortunate that I have not had to travel far, yet: with the recent visit of the enchanting Eboracum Baroque; and the accomplished, enthusiastic Orchestra of the Swan crouching figuratively on my doorstep – both, up to now, performing familiar repertoire. And it was to Stratford ArtsHouse I returned, last night, for another concert in OOTS’ scrumptious 2015‑16 Shakespeare 400 season: ‘Bach Doubled’.

Revolving around three Bach violin concerti – be still, my beating heart… – the ecstatic solo E major (BWV 1042); the entrancing Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043); and the utterly engaging one for violin and oboe (BWV 1060) – this was a programme that played to the orchestra’s and soloists’ undoubted strengths. [Although I am not sure the pieces were necessarily played in the right order: firstly because of the printed sequence (which implied a last-minute change of heart or plan); and, secondly – to judge from the audience reception, and repeated calls back to the stage for Tamsin Waley-Cohen and David Le Page: both extremely popular, locally (and with good reason) – the double violin concerto should almost certainly have closed the concert. (I would be interested to learn if this pattern is repeated at tonight’s Town Hall Classics in Birmingham….)]

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

Handel’s overture to his magical opera Giulio Cesare provided the Shakespeare connection, this time around – opening proceedings with a too-short burst of utter baroque cheer: but a great way of warming up the orchestra, and bringing the audience to rapt attention.

Next came the sumptuous double violin concerto, and – although I think we should have been left waiting, licking our chops, to hear it (especially as it was the one work that appeared to have pulled us all in to the justifiably full house) – as you would expect from performers of such calibre, the two soloists did not disappoint: with wonderful interplay and interwoven dynamics.

I had gone thinking I would have been more than happy to hear just the Largo ma non tanto (although the more largo, the better) from this: which is heart-breakingly beautiful; and proof that Bach is no mere rude, technical, mechanical. It has always been one of my favourite tear-jerkers; and a work I know inside and out from repeated playing, coaching and listening… – but the oboe and ‘single’ violin concerti’s slow movements also completely absorbed me: demonstrating that the man could not help but write sinuous emotion of the highest order – and, as Waley-Cohen rightly stated in the pre-concert talk, his music is still, somehow, fascinatingly “contemporary”. Gripping stuff indeed.

However, I have to beg to differ (boo, hiss) with David Curtis – whose judgment as both artistic director and principal conductor is usually flawless – and his assertion that an orchestra this small (this “chamber”) doesn’t need ‘managing’ during performance. (This was also proved recently – and positively – by Eboracum Baroque; and I believe that there is an ineffable power in – and which stems from – befitting, expert musical direction.) Although tempi were generally crisp and cohesive, the dynamics were not as subtle or as controlled as when the maestro is in charge: for example, during the wonderful explosive precision of the Stravinsky (and its challenging, first-movement shifts of pace); and the happiness of the too-short Handel. (I also missed Curtis’ habitual interpolated words of wisdom – one of the major draws of any OOTS appearance.)

It may be the acoustics of the ArtsHouse’s “wooden O” – perhaps combined with my mortal hearing – but I felt that both Waley-Cohen and Le Page struggled, occasionally, to float above the level of the orchestra (especially in that gripping central movement) – although this should not detract from the sheer charisma and crystalline radiance of their joint performance. They obviously have a rapport and gladsome mutual respect – both of which shone through the whole work.

Bach is the supreme genius of music…. This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.

The same should be said for Waley-Cohen’s partnership with Victoria Brawn in the Concerto for Violin and Oboe. The heart-rending, astonishing, beautiful, smooth, sustained reed-playing of Brawn was musicianship and soul of the highest quality – producing a stunning “overheard intimate conversation” (as Curtis described it before the concert): and, again, they complemented each other perfectly. [Although the Stravinsky was flawless – and over far too quickly: as was the whole concert – this heavenly music, with heavenly musicians – and that includes the orchestra: who are never anything less than magical – was (albeit marginally) the highlight of the night.] Here, because of the lighter, pizzicato accompaniment in the Adagio, the lines scintillated and hung in the air miraculously: clear and strong as gossamer. I think I may have stopped breathing….

Whether the angels play only Bach praising God, I am not quite sure.
After the interval, the Stravinsky; a shuffling of chairs – it was good to see the violas brought to the fore for the Bach and Handel; although it would also be nice to see the violins balanced this way, one day, in Elgarian fashion (or ‘continental-style’), for more modern works… – and then on to the joyous finale of the E major concerto.

The Stravinsky Concerto in D, as I have hinted, was mesmerizing: and was the ideal piece for demonstrating the innate, supreme talent of OOTS – their control of timing and volume, lyricism and tone; their strength and cohesion in small numbers. This was simultaneously wonderful, witty and addictive! And Curtis proved, yet again, what a subtle master he is at the helm.

Waley-Cohen made the fieriness of the first and last movements of the Bach seem so effortless: with fantastic tonality throughout the range. (The bottom G‑string on her “1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin” has a wonderful, muscular growling richness: which she emphasized perfectly – a wonderful complement to the singing top E‑string, and her ventures up towards the higher, soaring, lyrical reaches of the fingerboard.) Joyous stuff indeed – especially the enthusiastic, almost perpetuum mobile of the uplifting first movement.

The Adagio, with its hypnotic ground bass – surely inspiration for the Morse soundtrack… – was yet more proof of Bach’s uncanny ability to worm his way deep into your heart: and it was this low, lowing ‘melody’ that resonated through my mind as I headed home; as well as the shimmering, subtle harpsichord playing of (the uncredited) David Ponsford – obviously also much admired and appreciated by Waley-Cohen. I’m not sure I remember much of the final Allegro assai – although I do recollect wanting to cheer…!

It was good to see the ArtsHouse full for such wonderments. Although I noticed, as I left, that one seat, behind me, was taken up by a happy chap in tails and natty socks, for some strange reason dressed as a conductor…!

At the end of our visit, Fleisher agreed to play something on my piano, a beautiful old 1894 Bechstein concert grand that I had grown up with, my father’s piano. Fleisher sat at the piano and carefully, tenderly, stretched each finger in turn, and then, with arms and hands almost flat, he started to play. He played a piano transcription of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, as arranged for piano by Egon Petri. Never in its 112 years, I thought, had this piano been played by such a master – I had the feeling that Fleisher had sized up the piano’s character and perhaps its idiosyncrasies within seconds, that he had matched his playing to the instrument, to bring out its greatest potential, its particularity. Fleisher seemed to distill the beauty, drop by drop, like an alchemist, into flowing notes of an almost unbearable beauty – and, after this, there was nothing more to be said.

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