New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Saturday, 31 October
Johann Sebastien Bach and his composer sons were the focus of this faintly unorthodox concert held – for the first time in my reviewing life – in Wellington College’s swanky Alan Gibbs Centre. (What it is to have improbably wealthy alumni as donors!) It was a clever theme, allowing the audience to experience the standard joys of Bach as well as the ways in which his sons took on and modified his musical legacy, straddling the baroque and classical eras. (CPE Bach, as concert director Vesa-Matti Leppanen reminded us, was at one stage far more famous than his father.)
The theme could in fact have been explored more fully: apart from one concerto by CPE Bach and one flute duet from WF Bach, the remaining four works were all by Bach the elder. Possibly this reflects the way that the reputations of the sons have fallen over time, but still. Something by JC Bach, for instance, wouldn’t have gone amiss.
That said, there was much to enjoy. The opener, the aforementioned flute duet, was beautifully played, especially the peaceful second movement, its flute lines rising over and over each other very slowly, and the quickfire finale. WF Bach’s writing was, as Leppanen noted, a hard-to-categorise blend of baroque order and classical expressiveness, and well worth dusting off here. Likewise CPE Bach’s concerto No. 4. Soloist Deirdre Irons on the fortepiano was particularly good in a performance of insistent intricacy. Sadly the fortepiano was simply far too quiet against the backdrop of the other instruments; although this, charmingly, set Irons in her own miniature sound world, it simply felt unbalanced in the bigger picture.
There were no such problems after the interval when cellist Andrew Joyce performed the gavottes and the gigue from JS Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6, displaying wonderful technical ability at top speed and conjuring up a wide range of moods. This was followed by JS Bach’s Suite No. 3, containing the famous ‘Air on a G String’. This was undoubtedly a more authentic version than some of the more Romantic interpretations, but felt a touch subdued at times.
The remaining pieces, closing out both the first and second halves, were both brass arrangements of JS Bach compositions. The first, the ‘unfinished’ Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of the Fugue, is a wonderful piece of writing, and very wittily introduced by French horn player Samuel Jacobs, but confined to the brass instruments it felt over-busy, its lines and tonal colours insufficiently distinct.
By contrast, the chorale Vor deinen Thron provided a sumptuous finish, its golden tones suggesting both a mournful dignity and a strength of conviction. Not everything about this slightly experimental concert was a success (and the players warming up just the other side of a thin curtain were a touch distracting) but it was, overall, a successful innovation.