Berkahn shows how you can have fun with Bach

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Jonathan Berkahn and friends: Bernard Wells (guitar, whistle, piano); Megan Ward (fiddle, viola); Karla Norton (Fiddle); Emily Griffiths (fiddle); Tom Stonehouse (bodhran)

The Daughters of Invention: music based on the thematic material of Bach’s Two-part Inventions
Jonathan Sebastien Berkahn: movements from a suite: Allemande, Courante, Gavotte
J S Bach: Two-part Inventions 1 in C BWV 772, 2 in C minor BWV 773, 3 in D BWV 774, 10 in G BWV 781, 11 in G minor BWV 782, 12 in A BWV 783, 13 in A minor BWV 784
Berkahn‘s Digressions on each of the Bach inventions

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 February, 12:15 pm

This was one of those concerts that looked enigmatic from the outside, and I wondered whether it was going to deserve a review – not that I’ve ever failed to be greatly entertained by all my previous encounters with the multi-talented Berkahn.

The secret here was to take several of Bach’s Two-part Inventions and respond to what Berkahn takes to be Bach’s suggestion, taking them as starting point to turn “their thematic material to wholly un-Bachian ends, in genres mostly derived from the Irish traditional music I play with friends every Tuesday night at the Welsh Dragon”; in Berkahn’s words.

They began with three of Berkahn’s typical Bach suite movements, such as found in the keyboard Partitas and suites for orchestra, violin, cello and keyboard. An allemande, courante and gavotte; they were played by Berkahn and his cellist son Samuel. They were not bad imitations of the real thing, charming and very agreeable.

Then came seven of the Funfzehn Inventionen as they are called on the facsimile title page (in the Fraktur font) found in my Dover edition of Bach’s keyboard music. Designed as exercises for Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, these ‘Inventios’, as Bach calls them, are very approachable, not necessarily impossible for the amateur, melodically attractive.

They do not often feature in ordinary keyboard recital programmes, and I have to confess to being rather delighted at their charm and plain musical interest, and I certainly admired their performance. Berkahn’s approach was lively, fully aware of whatever shafts of wit might be found and I find that I wrote the words ‘exemplary playing’ with respect to the first two. And No 3 enjoyed a gentle triple metre.

Bach’s advertisement suggested that with dedication to these studies the conscientious student could acquire “a strong foretaste of composition”. And that was clearly enough to give Berkahn licence for his delightful elaborations. His first Digression made use of the ideas in both the first and second Inventions which he combined nicely, sounding comfortably idiomatic. The other players were employed in varying combinations: in the first, Berkahn played his own piano accordion and Bernard Wells the guitar; the three violins (he pointed up his intended folk-style by calling them fiddles) joined one by one. It all sounded perfectly natural and not all that distant from what Bach might have done if his purpose had been more light-hearted.

Wells gave a nice folkish colour to the third Digression with his whistle and Tom Stonehouse contributed his bodhran – a percussion instrument. In the 11th Digression, entitled ‘waltz’, instruments changed hands again with Wells at the piano, Megan Ward changed to viola, and Berkahn again played the piano accordion. Hardly a Johann Strauss copy, it moved gently, evolving in a most natural way. No 10 followed, merging into a jig, with Ward now borrowing the whistle, to create a nice Irish feeling.

And so it went: entertaining playing, with evident enjoyment by all the participants and casual, droll comments from Berkahn; it built to a finale – the Digression on No 12 in the happy key of A major, turning into a reel. All joined in, including cellist Samuel Berkahn. Hereabouts in my notes I wrote ‘these inventions are such fun’; not the sort of insightful, penetrating remark proper music critics should make.

Concerts involving Jonathan Berkahn (in this case a relative of his named Johann Sebastien Berkahn) are generally likely to have an unorthodox or surprising aspect as well as being fun. This one was all of that.


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