Remarkable NZSO concert of Bach family music inspired by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Diedre Irons and Andrew Joyce

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Vesa-Matti Leppänen – director and violin
‘Bach Extended’

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Duet for two flutes, F 57
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano, Wq 43/4 (Diedre Irons – fortepiano)
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus XIV (the last, unfinished fugue)
Cello Suite No 6 in D, BWV 1012, Gavottes and Gigue (Andrew Joyce)
Orchestral Suite No 3 in D, BWV 1068
Chorale Vor deinen Thron. BWV 668

Wellington College, Alan Gibbs Centre

Saturday 31 October, 7:30 pm

This was a very novel and interesting enterprise by the orchestra, partly on account of the venue, the surprisingly spacious hall at Wellington College. In the light of the lack in Wellington of a suitable auditorium that seats between 300 and 2000, apart from St Mary of the Angels and the Anglican cathedral, this space, presumably able to seat around 1500, could be useful for large musical events.

W F Bach from Bridget Douglas and Kristin Eade
While properly dominated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the concert opened with a touch of novelty – a piece for two flutes by the oldest of J S Bach’s surviving sons: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The Duet in F, F 57 (F stands for the acknowledged authority Falck). It was introduced with lively comments about the wooden flutes that would have been used in the mid 18th century, by Principal flute Bridget Douglas, with associate principal Kristin Eade; though I didn’t catch and could see clearly whether they were in fact playing early flutes.

It’s in three movements: Allegro moderato, Lamentabile and Presto (based on a Naxos recording by Patrick Gallois and Kazunori Seo).

C P E Bach and Diedre Irons 
Their playing of the first movement was beautifully soft and warm in tone, reflecting J S Bach rather more than do the younger sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. The playing was engaging and rhythmically attractive, and though not particularly marked melodically. Then a meandering, unostentatious second movement, showing a thoughtful and perhaps popular character, and the third conventionally brisk.

CPE Bach’s music is more prolific than WF’s and it became widely popular through his long employment in Berlin at the court of Frederick the Great and in Hamburg; but virtually disappeared after his death. However, it has become pretty familiar since the mid 20th century.

The orchestra, with Diedre Irons at the fortepiano, played his Concerto No 4 (his modern authority and cataloguer is Alfred Wotquenne – Wq). Its movements are Allegro assai, Poco adagio and tempo di menuetto, Allegro assai.

The fortepiano was positioned conventionally, with strings, the two flutes again, and two horns (Samuel Jacobs and Euan Harvey). The quiet of the fortepiano among the strings and the brevity of the first movement may have surprised some in the audience, as well as the Haydnesque character of the music though, alongside that (Haydn was about 20 years younger) it was certainly not as remarkable and entertaining as a Haydn concerto. There was a surprising quality in the slow pace of the second movement which without warning shifted to the triple, minuet rhythm. The last movement seemed to be the longest, again with curious rhythm shifts towards the end (my note during the last movement was ‘polite but hardly memorable’), but there were enough little surprises and a broad sense of interesting invention to hold attention.

The rest of the concert consisted of J S Bach.

Contrapunctus XIV
What a singular choice to focus on two of Bach’s last works, the final ‘Contrapunctus’ of The Art of Fugue and the Chorale Vor deinen Thron!

The choice of these Bach pieces seems to have been driven by the idea of death or finality.

The Art of Fugue was itself his last major work, left with no clear indication of what instruments should be employed, and also left unfinished before the end of the 14th fugue, or Contrapunctus, as Bach named them. The instrumentation chosen here was that by Ralph Sauer for brass instruments which created very imaginatively its funereal sense of finality. And it proved interesting in highlighting the singular talents of the orchestra’s brass section, including often strikingly, Andrew Jarvis’s tuba. The players seemed to place singular emphasis on the last unresolved note, avoiding the temptation that one occasionally encounters, to graft a legitimate cadence onto it.

Sixth Cello Suite 
After the interval came two of the most familiar Bach works – the two Gavottes and the Gigue from the last of the six cello suites in the remarkably gifted hands of Andrew Joyce. Though it might have been additionally revelatory if he had also played the Prelude or the Sarabande, this was a superb experience from a sensitive and perceptive cellist.

Suite No 3 
And then the third orchestral suite , BWV 1068: chosen no doubt on account of its Aria  or ‘Air on the G String’ (No 74 in this year’s ‘Settling the Score’ from Concert FM on Labour Day).

However, this was the suite in its entirety, with scrupulous playing not only by strings, but by trumpets and oboes, timpani and bassoon, horns and tuba. The varied overture, showing early signs of its later evolution in the form of the symphony, was quite as rewarding to hear as was the Air that follows. And it’s been a long time since I heard a live performance of the entire suite: including gavottes, bourée and gigue. This was an entirely enriching experience.

‘Vor deinen Thron’ – chorale prelude
It was reputedly Bach’s chorale prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron’, and not the unfinished 14th ‘Contrapunctus’ from The Art of Fugue that was Bach’s “deathbed composition”; reputedly dictated by the now blind composer. It is normally played on the organ but here was an arrangement involving the brass instruments. This performance captured the kind of pensive, neutral character that can be heard in Bach’s music, seeming hardly to seek any kind of tragic, funereal quality. Once again, it was the immaculate performance of these players that was so arresting, perhaps calling on the listener to decide how to feel about its purpose. And so it could have been heard, and seen, as a very different kind of conclusion to a very unusual selection of music by JS Bach and two of his sons.

This was the first of six performances of this programme – the rest are in the South Island:
Invercargill’s Civic Theatre on Tuesday 3 November
Dunedin’s Glenroy Auditorium in the Town Hall on Wednesday 4 November
Oamaru’s Opera House on Thursday 5 November
Christchurch’s auditorium, The Piano, on Friday 6 November
Nelson’s Centre of Musical Arts (formerly the Nelson School of Music) on Saturday 7 November.

I hope the citizens of these South Island cities take advantage of this unique chance to hear this rare and fascinating concert.


I came across a nicely literate, unpretentious description of these two last works by Bach (  

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ (Before your throne I now appear), BWV 668, has an interesting story behind it …

“BWV 668 is a chorale prelude, meaning that it is a piece of instrumental music which takes as its main thematic material an existing song. In this case the original music that the piece is based upon is a hymn entitled ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, which was originally written by Paul Eber in the 16th century. The source melody (or cantus firmus) was composed by Louis Bourgeois, also in the 16th century. Bach had previously arranged this hymn as BWV 431.  …early in his career, Bach created an organ chorale prelude from this piece, BWV 641, under the original title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’….

“What Bach does with BWV 641 is create an accompaniment which is based upon the melodies of the original hymn, but then adds an ornate cantabile melodic line over the top, which I’m sure you’ll agree is rather exquisite.

“’Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ actually exists in two different versions. BWV668 is included in the 18 Great Chorale Preludes, and actually consists of a fragment (about two thirds) of the entire composition, copied out by someone other than Bach. BWV668a is the same piece, complete, with slight differences, which was included (under the title ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’) in the original publication of Art of Fugue, published after Bach’s death in 1751.

“There is a story that was perpetuated by Bach’s son CPE Bach, that his father dictated the chorale directly from his deathbed. This is now considered to be rather flamboyant myth-making, which gave the piece the nickname ‘The Deathbed Chorale’. What is actually now understood to be the case is that BWV668a was a piece that was just lying around (Bach was an inveterate re-worker of old material), which Bach decided to put more work into as he lay dying, meaning that although it was not composed out of nowhere, it was still the very last thing that he worked on, and thus a significant artistic statement.”


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