“Under every grief & pine/runs a joy with silken twine” – Martin Riesley plays unaccompanied Bach at St.Andrew’s, Wellington

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church presents:

JS BACH – Sonata in G Minor BWV 1001
Adagio / Fuga / Siciliana / Presto

JS BACH – Partita in B Minor BWV 1002
Allemanda / Corrente / Sarabande / Tempo di Borea

Interval –  Talking about the organ
Susan Jones (minister) and Peter Franklin (organist)

LYELL CRESSWELL – “Burla” for solo violin (from “Whira”)

JS BACH – Sonata in A Minor BWV 1003
Grave / Fuga / Andante / Allegro

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Friday 24th May, 2019

This was a benefit concert to help raise funds for refurbishing the Church’s pipe organ.

Bach himself wasn’t known as a violinist to the same extent as he was a keyboard player, yet according to his son, Carl Philippe Emanuel, “he played the violin cleanly and powerfully”, and his familiarity with the instrument is evident in the way he wrote his six Violin Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-1006), so they could “stand alone” as compositions without the customary basso continuo (“senza Basso”), as were the six Suites for Violincello solo (BWV 1007-1012). All were written during the years around 1720, while Bach was Court Musician to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cőthen, at a time when he was taken up with secular music – his Brandenburg Concerti and Orchestral Suites also date from the same period.

In his excellent programme note accompanying the concert (though it was uncredited, the use of the first person singular pronoun when talking about performing this music was an obvious giveaway!) violinist Martin Riseley refers obliquely to Bach’s possible intention, as expressed on the autograph with the words “Sei solo” (You are alone), of enshrining something deeply personal within this music. In 1720 the composer’s first wife had died, even more tragically, unbeknown to him while he was absent from the court, perhaps giving rise to the remark “the loneliness and intimacy of the violin, without bass” in Riseley’s commentary, examples of which quality abound in these works.

As with the playing of a different soloist in a concert last year here in Wellington featuring Bach’s music (Raeul Pierard playing the ‘Cello Suites – see the review at https://middle-c.org/2018/11/baching-at-the-moon-cellist-raeul-pierard-at-st-peters-on-willis-wellington/)  it was revelatory to experience this music in an “ongoing” rather than a “single work” context, with Riseley also making reference to the “journey” made by this music across the different individual pieces, for him, unequivocally linking the music in between the opening G minor Sonata and the Chaconne of the D Minor Partita – something of a pity, therefore, that we weren’t able to physically experience this entire span, here, in a single concert. Still, the point was made sufficiently by what WAS played this evening – and despite both an interval and a separate, unrelated item by New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell interpolated in the flow, the connections seemed to “crackle into life” again when the violinist returned to Bach’s music, the A Minor Sonata BWV 1003, to conclude the evening’s concert.

Beginning with the Sonata No.1 in G Minor, I was immediately struck by the violinist’s variety of timbre, colour, tone and intensity as the music’s phrases were “sounded”. It was as if my sensibilities were being taken on a constantly augmented journey whose trajectories were beguilingly difficult to predict, and diverting to try and follow. Following the opening Adagio, the Fuga (Fugue) presented us with an equally compelling game of double-voiced propositions and potential resolutions. The voices were inseparable, yet constantly seeming to challenge one another to undertake intervals or harmonies that led to worlds of expression one didn’t anticipate. And what trenchant intensities at the end of the movement!

Angular, almost awkward-sounding in places, the Siciliano seemed “overladen’ with its own material at first, before the gentle rhythms gradually shaped the figurations with resonances of what had gone before. By contrast, the Presto’s tumbling 3/8 urgency teased my ear with its rhythmic ambiguities in places, Riseley marking the repeats with great flourishes and compelling attention with his playing’s molto perpetuo energies and variety of touch.

Each of the movements in the following B Minor Partita were followed by a “double” or variation, thus named by the ‘halving” of time values and the resulting “doubling” of note numbers. Hence the opening Allemanda, with strong, stately dotted rhythms whose figurations alternate between a ‘snap” and a triplet, was transformed into a dance of evenly-paired semiquavers for its “double”. The Courante (taken from a French term, to “run”) had a strength and rigour which in the “double” became a Presto, marked by bowing whose variety gave great cause for delight.

Next came the dignified Sarabande, profound and ritualistic with spread chords and sustained tones of great intensity – perhaps not every single note here hit its mark directly, but the commitment to the task was compelling. The “double” used triplet quavers to enliven the Sarabande’s stateliness, the piece’s beautiful symmetries filled with variations of touch and tone. Finally, the Tempo di Borea (like a Bouree) featured a well-known double-stopped opening, by turns energetic and whimsical, its “double” a more flowing, less “punctuated” outpouring, emphasising the piece’s line rather than its rhythm, with plenty of variety of touch, if a somewhat po-faced concluding note.

At this point in the concert we were “diverted” by an interval with a special feature, a plea for “organ donors” to make themselves known, re the individual pipes of the somewhat ailing St.Andrew’s organ. With the parish minister Susan Jones and the organist Peter Franklin providing an entertaining commentary with music, they made the best possible case for the cause of making a commitment to the organ’s refurbishment, suggesting individual donors “sponsor a pipe” from the organ – a brilliant and attractive idea!

In no time at all we were off again, on a different kind of diversion, one involving the music of New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell, a piece  called “Burla” (suggesting a kind of burlesque?) , written for Douglas Lilburn’s eightieth birthday, but also part of a larger work “Whira” (Maori for “violin” or “fiddle”). The music in effect sounded not unlike overtures made by a terpsichordian wasp attempting to form a dance-duo with a somewhat reluctant hornet! The piece had a striking “visceral” effect in places, employing some deep, grainy “horse-hair on gut” sounds which illustrated the mechanics of friction rather than the latter’s more conventionally musical application – and then included a throwaway fragment of what sounded to me like the phrase “Sings Harry” from Lilburn’s eponymous song-cycle, right at the end. An Antipodean, heat-of-day variant of Bartok’s “Night Music” perhaps? Whatever the case, a brilliant and engaging performance of the piece by the violinist.

Concluding the programme was Bach’s A Minor Sonata for Solo Violin BWV 1003. The music’s dignified, easily-moving opening encompassed both contemplation and exploration at the beginning, while opening the music’s vistas as it proceeded. Riseley’s performance  didn’t hold anything back, embracing whole moments of circumspection and ambivalence of intent, even as the music went straight into the Fuga, maintaining an alternate relaxation and emphasis that brought out an extraordinary kind of 3-d aspect to the music, a view encompassing both the immediate and the middle distance – masterly playing! He had the measure of those seemingly endless”spins” which transcend time and place so that we were ourselves transported, particularly throughout the Fuga’s second half.

The C Major Andante was compellingly and expansively-phrased – it had something of the itinerant fiddler about it, something big-boned, yet with a “musing”, self-absorbed trajectory, sounding very “folky”, and with a suggestion of the “drone” in the bass – almost a kind of “Winter Journey” in itself – amazing music! The minor-key figurations of the Allegro finale had echo-like phrases following one another in quick succession, filled with suggestiveness and playful touches amid the po-faced purpose of it all – the piece’s concluding low A was enough, I would think, to ensure that we would all want to come back to St Andrew’s in a fortnight’s time to conclude the music’s journey!

Note: Martin Riseley will be playing the three remaining Sonatas and Partitas of JS Bach at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church on Friday 7th June, at 6:30pm

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