Back to Bach and his Family and Friends

Back to Bach and his Family and Friends
Devon Baroque directed by Persephone Gibbs
Works by J.B. Bach, Telemann, Goldberg, Pachelbel, C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach and J.S. Bach
St Mary’s Church, Totnes
Sunday 27th May

Devon Baroque Chamber Ensemble credit Philip R. Buttall

Devon Baroque Chamber Ensemble (c) Philip R. Buttall

 

Johann Bernhard Bach – Selections from Ouverture in D
Georg Philipp Telemann – Concerto Polonois
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – Trio Sonata in C
Johann Pachelbel – Suite in G for keyboard P.440
Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach Trio in C minor: Sanguineus et Melancholicus
Johann Christian Bach  Concerto in G for harpsichord and strings Op.1 No.4
Johann Sebastian Bach  Ricercar in six parts from The Musical Offering

Perhaps it was something in the title – Bach’s Family & Friends – that occasioned such an informal feel to an evening devoted to the music of the German musical dynasty family, and one or two of their seriously-gifted friends. Since its inception, Devon Baroque has been setting the standard for innovative, exciting approaches to baroque music, played on original instruments. Normally an orchestra of 14 strings and wind players, for this programme of chamber music it was specially trimmed down to two violins, viola, and cello continuo, with the keyboard switching between harpsichord and chamber organ, as the music required.

The first family member introduced was Johann Sebastian’s second cousin, Johann Bernhard Bach (1676-1749), much of whose music is unfortunately lost, apart from several sets of dances for string orchestra. Four pieces from his Orchestral Suite (Ouverture) in D – Ouverture – Marche, Passepied and Air la Joye – provided an ideal concert opener. It allowed both the players and their instruments to settle down, since gut strings are notoriously difficult to keep in tune during the evening without regular and quite extensive tuning. The four string instruments, immaculately led, as ever, by Devon Baroque Director Persephone Gibbs, produced a taut sound throughout. There was great attention to detail, in terms of articulation, shared dynamics, and, most importantly, the players allowed this essentially happy and unhindered music to trip along, much to the delight of the audience. Co-director Andrew Wilson-Dickson provided the firmest harmonic support at the keyboard, always ready to decorate and elaborate, but never at the expense of over-fussiness or compromising the ensemble.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1683-1767) was one of Johann Sebastian’s most illustrious fellow-composers, friend, and godfather to Carl Philipp Emmanuel. He contributed the second item, one of his two Concertos Polonois, works reminiscent of his early days in Poland, where he spent time before going to Hamburg, and which certainly made an impression on the young composer. Here again the players crafted an opening Dolce movement, where the sound was verging more on symphonic, than string-quartet proportions. The ensuing Allegro was despatched with great verve and élan, beautifully poised in terms of fleetness of foot in the opening sections, while finely capturing the more rustic elements of the intervening episodes. The minuet-like Largo returned listeners to a sense of courtly calm and order after the rumbustiousness of the preceding movement, only leaving an essentially bright and breezy Allegro to round things off in high spirits, buoyed up by occasional passing snippets of what had been heard earlier in this charming, and unfortunately rarely played work.

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) – a probable pupil of Johann Sebastian – was a child prodigy who regularly played the harpsichord to landed gentry in Leipzig, at the tender age of 14. Count Kaiserling, former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, often stopped in the city, and the product of this association with Johann Sebastian was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, written for the teenager to play to the Count in the latter’s periods of insomnia. Goldberg’s Trio Sonata in C gave the violist a short stay of absence, while the two violins were embroiled in some delightful counterpoint, with cello and harpsichord providing secure, though never unyielding harmonic support beneath. In the opening Adagio the imitative part-writing was so tastefully managed, in terms of phrasing and dynamics, producing some lovely suspensions along the way, and showing real empathy between each other. The brisk, fugal Alla Breve was despatched with great gusto, with that shared understanding this time manifesting itself in the seamless way they wove their imitative entries and contrapuntal lines. A plaintive Largo in A minor then provided the ideal launch pad for the lively Gigue finale in 12/8, a veritable tour de force of invention, and the closing movement of a work that really does deserve greater exposure.

Simply by definition, it can sometimes be a difficult call to include an extended work for solo keyboard in a programme that is ostensibly given, as this was, by a ‘chamber ensemble’. But with their consummate skill and flair for successful programming, Gibbs and Wilson-Dickson, as ever, came up with the perfect solution. Firstly, placing the solo keyboard item directly after the interval caused no uncomfortable stage resetting. Then, most important, while the chosen work was in four movements, even taken collectively they represented but a small proportion of the overall playing time – ideal, in fact, both for those who wanted to hear the harpsichord and chamber organ play something on their own, and for those who had come to hear an ensemble. Furthermore, choosing a piece by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – a family friend and tutor to Johann Sebastian’s eldest brother – made a direct parallel with the Goldberg that had gone before. Like Goldberg, Pachelbel is widely known today for only one piece, a Canon, and indeed a work that is only supposedly his own anyway. The Suite in G is one of many that Pachelbel wrote, which betray a strong French influence on German music at the time, French being the emerging language of the time for educated Germans seeking to impress. Wilson-Dickson captured the style of each of the four short movements, effectively swapping from harpsichord to chamber organ as the character of the music dictated.

In his clear and sufficiently comprehensive programme notes, Wilson-Dickson refers to the next composer as a ‘musical maverick amongst the family’. Johann Sebastian’s eldest son Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714-1788) was a respectful continuo-player at the Potsdam Court of Frederick the Great, but also a highly-influential keyboard soloist, improviser, and champion of the clavichord. In addition, Wilson-Dickson writes that many of Carl Philipp Emmanuel’s pieces show ‘a wild eccentricity’, particularly in the conflict of emotional states. The Trio in C minor – subtitled Sanguineus et Melancholicus – shows Sanguine (Presto) and Melancholy (Allegretto) in constant confrontation with each other in its opening movement, while the piece, as a whole, is accompanied by extremely detailed playing instructions. Within just the first 25 bars, for example, the following four comments appear in the score: ‘Are Sanguine and Melancholy in agreement?’ – ‘Sanguine is of a different mind’ – ‘Sanguine sheds some liveliness to entice Melancholy’ – ‘Another question’.

Taking this into consideration – as well as the often extremely virtuosic writing along the way – the work requires someone who is not only an expert player, but also something of an actor, too, to bring it off, not only in terms of the ear, but also visually. And, of course, if this was already not difficult enough to find in one person, you then have to source a second. Devon Baroque is extremely fortunate in having the services of American-born Gibbs, not only as Director, but also as its leader. Her musical credentials are impeccable and varied, from studying at New York’s Juilliard, and London’s Guildhall School of Music, to improvising with a rock band for a year, and immersing herself in tango-dancing – and holding degrees in English at Yale and Law at Columbia. It came as absolutely no surprise that she absolutely excelled on the night in the role of Melancholy, even if, for the rest of the programme, she characterised all the attributes of the opposing Sanguine camp – the hallmark, if you like, of a true actor.

Charged with the somewhat unenviable task of partnering Gibbs here, second violin Julie Hill did a truly stalwart job from the musical standpoint even though, in her more accustomed role in the fully-rigged Devon Baroque Orchestra, she might have felt at times almost beyond her comfort zone. Understandably, in such a technically demanding part, there was little left in the tank to attend to any extra histrionic niceties, and the occasional smile might have been occasioned more by a sense of pure relief than a genuine attempt to play the Sanguine role. Even so, Hill stepped up her game to the best of her ability – and you cannot ask for any more than that.

After the technical and emotional roller-coaster that was Sanguineus et Melancholicus, another deft bit of programming saw things move into quite a different world, with the Concerto in G for Harpsichord and Strings by Johann Sebastian’s youngest son Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782). Unlike Carl Philipp Emmanuel, he wrote music to satisfy the paying public of London, of necessity in an easy-going, immediately attractive and simple style, leading ultimately from the baroque era in a new-found direction that would culminate in the music of Mozart, and the Classical Period. Johann Christian’s charming little three-movement Concerto demonstrated the style to perfection. The sparkling performance, particularly Wilson-Dickson’s assured delivery at the harpsichord, and the quasi-orchestral string accompaniment, enhanced it even further.

It would have been unthinkable to end this programme featuring Bach’s Family and Friends with anything other than something by the great man himself, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). But it could prove challenging to choose which piece to perform, from his thousand or so extant works, to match both the resources available and provide an appropriate finale on the night. Gibbs and Wilson-Dickson had clearly given the matter considerable thought, and came up with the sublimely-imposing Ricercar from one of Johann Sebastian’s last works, The Musical Offering (1747). Correctly described in the programme as being ‘in six parts’, it created a certain air of expectancy among audience members as to who would take the fifth and sixth string parts. The harpsichord could not stand in here because of its essentially pizzicato, rather than sustained method of tone production. In an ideal world where money was no object, an extra viola and cello could be drafted in, but Devon Baroque does not enjoy the luxury of unlimited funds or backing. In the event, the solution was Wilson-Dickson turning to the chamber organ, to provide the missing lines himself. In as much as the two organ lines blended with those of the four string lines, this largely came off in performance, and had little significant effect on the overall appreciation of Bach’s quite breathtaking ingenuity in his mastery of complex fugal and canonic textures in six real parts. Very occasionally, though, combination or difference tones emanating from the organ did cloud the textural clarity a tad. Still, the playing was always highly articulate, expressive and sensitively shaped, nowhere more so than in the quite magical moment at the start when violist Steve Gleed announced the chromatically tortuous subject. Rather than merely treating the fugue subject as a technical exercise, for him and his fellow players to develop using a myriad of well-honed contrapuntal devices, it felt more like a proud parent carefully handing over their new baby to friends and family to hold, cherish and admire, from one to another, as, indeed might have been the case with the eminently more prolific Bachs, at any family gathering.

Programmes like this go a long way to convince audiences that music from this particular historical period is usually anything but stuffy, and, when presented in such an overly informal setting, is truly entertaining as well as musically totally satisfying. Devon Baroque is a professional ensemble that, as with the county’s famed cream and cider, deserves to be better known further afield. There is always going to be an element of risk, but with the Gibbs/Wilson partnership at the musical helm, and such a supportive, enthusiastic and competent crew behind them, perhaps now is the time to consider taking a leaf out of another illustrious Devonian’s book – seafarer Sir Francis Drake – and set sail for more distant shores.

Philip R Buttall