Enlightening, themed concert at hands of skilled, insightful musicians

Anne Loesser (violin), Jane Young (cello), Martin Ryman (harpsichord)

Music by composers who influenced J S Bach by
Georg Muffat: Ciacona in G major
Johan Jakob Froberger: Suite No. XII in C major
Georg Philipp Telemann: Cello Sonata in D major TWV 41:D6

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 November, 12:15 pm

It was either this interestingly promoted programme of music that influenced Bach, or the nice weather that broke out at lunchtime that brought a somewhat larger than average audience to this concert.

The programme pushed a couple of useful buttons. The names of the performers, players in the NZSO and/or Orchestra Wellington, and a keyboardist whose name rang bells, and some kind of guarantee of musical worth, inasmuch as it implied that Bach would have admired the music chosen.

Those qualities proved themselves.

Muffat was of the generation before Bach, contemporary of Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, Marin Marais, Biber, Corelli, and not long after Lully and Charpentier. It’s from a collection called Apparatus musico-organisticus, mostly of toccatas, evidently designed for the organ, though here it was played on the harpsichord, and sounded fine.

Muffat, of Scottish descent, was born in 1653 in Savoy, in the French Alps, educated in Paris (perhaps with Lully), went to Prague and then to Italy to study further and finally became Kapellmeister to the bishop of Passau (on the Danube, on what is today on the German/Austrian border).

It’s little wonder that he tended to combine, deliberately or just instinctively, the musical languages of all three cultures.

The Ciacona, or Chaconne, conjures music that Bach might have had in his head when he wrote the great Chaconne that ends the Second Solo Violin Partita. It is a reasonably well-known and attractive piece, and its performance was admirable.

Johan Jakob Froberger was of a generation earlier than Muffat (in 1616). The programme notes say that “he influenced practically every major composer in Europe, including J S Bach, by developing the genre of the keyboard suite and, like Muffat, contributed greatly to the cross-pollination of musical traditions through his many travels. For much of his life Froberger lived in Vienna, where he worked for the Viennese court.”

Ryman spoke to enlarge on that but he didn’t use the microphone and his voice didn’t carry well. However, the Suite No. XII in C major did speak clearly and engagingly. The first movement, Lament, (also called an Allemande) found its message, not through the common device of falling motifs or even use of minor key, but with more subtle means, using melodic shapes that deftly created an elegiac tone, all set to rest with the slow scale rising to heaven. The Gigue had a discreet character, attractively ornamented, and subject to fleeting modulations. There was no lack of melodic ideas of real charm in the following Courante and Sarabande. We hear little of either of these composers; a rather different and in some ways more adventurous sound than is familiar from later generations of baroque composers.

Telemann represented the later generation, born just a couple of years before Bach, and thus somewhat dubious as an ‘influence’, as his music is less complex and intellectual than is much of Bach.

His Cello Sonata in D major (TWV 41:D6) was published in a journal called Der getreue Musikmeister (‘The Faithful Music Master’) edited by Telemann and a colleague. Cellist Jane Young led the way, as the harpsichord now became just a little more than polite accompanist. Young has recently taken up with the baroque cello and her instrument (well, her playing of it) gave off a fully convincing air of warm, rich sound, especially on the lower strings, in the opening Lento. Sometimes the absence of vibrato in echt baroque playing can sound odd, even pretentious, but here Young’s steady tone was perfectly unobtrusive.

The second, Allegro, movement wasn’t quite as convincing in tone, though rhythmically vigorous and the fourth movement had a similar feeling. So I enjoyed the third-movement Largo with its calm, lyrical character. Listening to this music, even though it doesn’t have the feeling of strength and, let’s say, genius that most of J S Bach has, still fills one with astonishment for its fluency and sheer fecundity.

Finally we reached J S Bach. The solo works for violin (and cello) seem to be better known, but the accompanied violin sonatas are not half bad. The Sonata in A major, BWV 1015 is the second of the Sechs Sonaten für Clavier und Violine whose BWV numbers run from 1014 to 1019. (Incidentally, ‘clavier’ translates as pianoforte; the Germans use the Italian word ‘cembalo’ for the harpsichord. And the placing of ‘clavier’ before ‘violine’ in the title suggests at least equal importance). Here, violinist Anne Loesser emerged while cellist Young remained, so turning the ‘clavier’ part into a basso continuo one. This worked very idiomatically. In fact, the cello part evolved very interestingly, occasionally picking up a melody from violin or harpsichord which, in spite of my remark above, hardly sounded the equal of Loesser’s very bright violin.

The notes pointed out that the sonata had the layout of the sonata da chiesa (‘church sonata’) with four movements of alternating character. Indeed it is no less interesting and impressive than any of the solo violin sonatas or partitas, rich in contrapuntal elaboration as well as musical invention. The last movement, Presto is the most familiar and its warmly inventive and energetic character was splendidly realised, even though neither cello nor harpsichord quite matched the much more 19th century volume and sonority of the violin here, and I might add, not quite the whole-hearted equality you get from a piano accompaniment.

The entire recital was a great success however, demonstrating how satisfying and enlightening a themed concert can be in the hands of musicians with the heart and the skill to bring off such stylistically varied music with such accomplishment and insight.