Bach père et fils, and antipodean Baroque resoundings, from Ensemble Paladino

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:

James Tibbles (harpsichord), Simone Roggen (violin),
Martin Rummel (‘cello), Eric Lamb (flute)

JS BACH (arr. Lamb/Rummel) – (re) Inventions, for flute and ‘cello
WF BACH – Trio No.2 in D Major Fk 47
LEONIE HOLMES – With strings attached
J.S.BACH – ‘Cello Suite No.1 in C Major BWV 1007
CPE BACH – Trio Sonata in B Minor Wq 143
JS BACH Trio Sonata (from Musikalisches Opfer) BWV 1079

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Friday 28th April, 2017

Auckland-based Ensemble Paladino’s intentions, as stated in an introductory note to this concert, were “to present uncompromising, diverse and fearless chamber music on the highest level”, an exciting and challenging statement of intent which, to my ears was fulfilled most expertly and mellifluously at Lower Hutt’s Little Theatre on Friday evening. It was interesting that, with the ensemble’s sound still resounding in my ears, I unexpectedly found myself comparing their presentation with that of another group of baroque musicians whom I heard “live” on a broadcast from RNZ Concert a day or so later.

This was a group called the Chiaroscuro Quartet, recorded at a concert in, I think, Ireland, performing, as per their publicity, with “period instrument practice to the fore, playing on gut strings, with minimal vibrato and tuning to the lower pitch of A430” (modern concert pitch is A440 or higher). It’s probably heretical of me to admit this, but I found myself somewhat repelled by the sounds made by the “period instrument” group brought to me “on air”, the distinctly unlovely timbres of the instruments and the almost complete lack of warmth and ease in the musicians’ phrasing. Yet this group, too (so we were told by the radio continuity announcer, was well-known for its “fearless and uncompromising approach to authentic performance practice” – that was all very well, but after a few minutes’ listening I found myself wanting to turn off the radio!

Yes, what you’re thinking could be right – perhaps had I been there, I would possibly have been one of those reactionary Parisians rioting in the theatre while howling for the composer’s blood, at the premiere of “Le Sacre du Printemps” in 1913! Of course, one never knows how these things might turn out – I might well come in time to replicate my present feelings about Stravinsky’s work (total and utter exhilaration every time I hear it!) in relation to the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s version of “fearless and uncompromising”, and come to think it wonderful! But for now, I’m firmly of the opinion that period instrument groups surely don’t have to sacrifice and/or brutalise beauty and graceful expression in the name of “authenticity”; and I find myself wondering why groups would want to pursue that course anyway.

So, I was grateful that Ensemble Paladino seemed to emphasise “authentic” qualities like clarity, flexibility, tonal variation and timbral character, and put across these same aspects of presentation with unselfconscious ease and grace, hand-in-glove with plenty of energy and focused intensity at appropriate moments. I never felt the music’s more startling or innovative qualities were underplayed or blunted in any way, even though the music’s tones and phrases consistently fell gratefully on the ear , and drew us readily and willingly into any intricacies or niceties of either harmony or articulation, instead of causing us to “duck for cover” amid laser-lines of searing vibrato-less tones or fusillades of jagged accented sforzandi notes!

Not that there weren’t challenges of different kinds to enjoy in this presentation – the first item took us outside the square a little way with a transcription by two of the ensemble’s members, flute-player, Eric Lamb, and ‘cellist Martin Rummel, of the “Fifteen Inventions for Keyboard” BWV 772-786, for (you’ve guessed it) flute and ‘cello! Though a didactic work (as the composer makes clear in an introduction to the score, with his wish that “amateurs of the keyboard – especially those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way…to learn to play cleanly in two parts”) its realisation always sounds a lot of fun, and more so on this occasion with two very differently-accented voices involved. This was the first time ensemble members had undertaken such a transcription, and it shouldn’t, in my view, be the last – the music’s “ownership” shone forth in the playing!

I hadn’t realised the extent to which Wilhelm Friedermann, the eldest son of JS Bach, was highly thought of as a composer, and the Trio Sonata Fk 47 which we then heard made the best possible case for his standing in this regard. We enjoyed the Vivaldi-like opening of the work with its pictorial birdsong figurations for the flute, and the subsequent duetting with the violin, lovely imitative effects as well as concerted “transports of delight” involving soaring lines and widely-traversed terrain. Set against these were closely-worked trio exchanges involving exciting instances of give-and-take between the musicians. A sombre Larghetto and a jig-like finale completed a work whose achievement ought to have been replicated more often by its composer, had it not been for his reputed idleness stemming the flow and making his name even better known.

Auckland composer Leonie Holmes’s new work “With strings attached” was, in her own words, characterised as “a joyful, whimsical and whirling encounter” – just the kind of thing a composer might write to celebrate a positive and fruitful association with colleagues and/or contemporaries. Commissioned by the Paladinos, the intention of the group was to have a contemporary work exploring the sounds of “historic” instruments. Given the burgeoning interest in “period” performance on the part of many musicians, the idea of having a contemporary composer write for such instruments seemed an alternatively thoughtful and attractive means of injecting some “living” creativity into their work.

“With strings attached” began not with a bang, but with – well, not exactly a “whimper” but with the composer’s self-avowed “tentative approach”, gentle pictorial and visceral evocations generated by pizzicato strings and harpsichord peckings, perhaps drops of rain, perhaps birdsong. Came the cello, and then the flute joining in the instruments’ conversation, very much a discourse of individuals with lines doing precisely as people do, as liable to go off on individual tangents as to join forces and generate plenty of common motoric energy. Alternatively the energies were contrasted between groups, with strings at one point holding fast to sustaining notes as the harpsichord cantered off enlarging the world in a different direction, or with the violin “speaking to its spirit” in the form of eerie harmonics and generally ghostly ambiences.

This was the composer’s “exploration and discovery of common ground’, which involved various ear-catching sequences – winsome, long-breathed chordings between flute and strings over running harpsichord figurations, not unlike a droll episode of silent-film accompaniment, followed by flute “sparrings” with the strings’ angular pizzicati, while the harpsichord played a kind of “noises off” role – so very atmospheric! Having explored these possibilities the instrumental sounds were then gradually dovetailed, voices overlapping and augmenting one another to a point where all the strength and sweetness was rolled up into one ball and bounced towards us with a joyful “Come and play!” gesture, bringing the work to an emphatic close – joyful, whimsical and whirling, indeed! We in the audience certainly enjoyed the adventure.

Disappointment immediately followed the interval at the news that violinist Simone Roggen would NOT be playing the great Chaconne from JS Bach’s D Minor Violin Partita, due to a back injury – so to restore equanimity, into the breach stepped the ‘cellist, Martin Rummel, with a lean, lithe and flavoursome performance of the composer’s first ‘Cello Suite in the key of G Major. Interestingly, the player talked about this first suite being more of an “introduction” to the world of the six individual suites than an entity in itself, a “whole being greater than the sum of its parts” kind of idea, but especially in relation to the G Major work.

I wrote too many comments regarding the ‘cellist’s playing to reproduce here, except in shortened form – the Prelude was sounded swiftly and lightly, but with the kind of articulation that invested such “character” into each note that one could relish the timbral differences between registers unreservedly! The Allemande combined a freely-expressed improvisatory air with well-tempered momentum, while the Courante seemed to draw from an endless reserve of energetic spontaneity to whirl the music onwards. After a satisfyingly profound and thoughtful Sarabande, the two Minuets brought the lightest of touches and the most flexible of pulses – not music to dance to, but instead to activate flexibility of thought and action. Finally, the jig’s joyous and uninhibited dance gave the music’s physicality full expression, leaving we listeners properly energised and fully content.

Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach, possibly the most innovative and certainly the most distinctive of JS Bach’s composer-sons, was his father’s true successor, while able to forge his own distinctive musical language, for which success he always gave credit to his father’s teaching and example. The Trio Sonata in B Minor Wq 143 performed here by Paladino demonstrated the new galant style of composition which Emmanuel Bach made his own, while paying homage to elements of the baroque still in favour in some quarters.

The Sonata’s first movement took on a serious, even sombre aspect at the start, which some feathery exchanges between flute and violin helped to disperse, with some superbly adroit playing. I particularly enjoyed the musicians’ warmly rounded tones, with none of the bleached-out, colour-averse quality which hardens textures and reduces lyrical warmth in some “authentic” performances. The Andante was a graceful tread, with the flute and violin doing very nicely without the cello at first, but requiring its depth of voice for some mid-movement measures. A jig-like figure for violin and flute had the finale dancing with rapid figurations, the cello more a continuo instrument, though the music developed an exhilarating whirl towards the end – a great pleasure!

It was left to “old Bach” himself to round off the concert with a Trio Sonata of his own, one instigated by his encounter with Frederick the Great while visiting his son at the King’s court. Frederick requested that Bach improvise a three-part fugue on a theme the King provided, which the composer did (all present were “seized with astonishment” at Bach’s skill, according to an eyewitness) – but the King then set Bach the task of improvising a 6-part fugue on the same theme, which the composer begged the King to be allowed to take home and work on his task – from this came the work we know as “The Musical Offering” BWV 1079, which included a Trio Sonata with a flute part – the flute was, of course Frederick’s own instrument.

This, then, was that very work, for which the ‘cellist placed himself in the middle of the ensemble instead of to one side, indicative, perhaps of the more integral involvement of his part in this music. The work’s opening Largo balanced beautifully languid and tightly-wrought figurations, the players enabling the notes to “speak” with subtle voicings and colours, whether open, or busily interactive. Bach seemed to be showing his son that there was “life in the old dog, yet” in the following Allegro, with its brilliant violin part and, in places assertive bass line; while in the Andante, the instruments pursue a long-breathed theme with rising utterances that seem to build to some kind of revelation, before finishing with a gratefully lovely dying fall.

Again Bach seemed to get his dander up and pull out all the stops with the Allegro finale, the cello instigating exciting running passages with tightly-woven, complex interactions, fantastic to follow and engage with, the playing generous and inviting in its involvement and physicality. It was, I thought, all truly and uncompromisingly joyous and interactive!

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