Vol. LXI, No. 37
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
A wooden church across from a cemetery on a village byway, canopied by overarching trees so luxuriant that, even on the sunniest days, they impart to the place a mysterious, vespertine air, is a locale more easily associated with Hawthorne’s gothic romances than a “bacchanalia” of baroque music. But hold on. Last Sunday afternoon, it became the ideal venue for “seancing” the musical spirits of members (and associates) of the Bach family. Proof: the works offered up in a concert entitled Banchetto Bachanale (a play both on the name Bach and on the collection of instrumental dances entitled the Banchetto Musicale).
The Banchetto Bachanale is the opening exercise of the Princeton Bach Workshop, a week long series of concerts, lectures, and master classes now taking place in Scheide Hall of the Princeton Theological Seminary. Two members of Banchetto Bachanale, Christa Lynn Pehl and Eva Kuhn, are participants in the workshop, as are Kristin Palombit, one of the event’s organizers (with Ms. Kuhn), and Jonathan Spitz, principal cellist of the New Jersey Symphony and a member of the Orpheus Ensemble.
According to Ms. Kuhn (pronounced KOO-n), a native of Switzerland and the holder of a prestigious fellowship to promote international peace and understanding, Sunday’s concert had three purposes: to present good music well played; to expose participants in the workshop to the variety of Bach’s music and the breadth of his influence; and to support and encourage what she calls the “village culture” of Kingston.
“Coming from a small town in Switzerland,” Kingston resident Ms. Kuhn said, “I am sometimes surprised by how little support Americans give to their local environments. I try to patronize the neighborhood store, eat in local restaurants, and support a cultural life for the village.” This fall, Ms. Kuhn plans to present in concert the Bach cello suites, the proceeds to go to the restoration fund of the Kingston United Methodist Church, although she is not herself a Methodist.
The playing in the concert was uniformly good to excellent. The overall plan of the program was chronological by style, with the three initial works representing the era-summarizing Johann Sebastian Bach. They were the Sonata for Flute and Continuo in E-Minor, BWV 1034, the Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in D-Major, BWV 1028, and the Six Little Preludes for Harpsichord. These first two works are loosely cast in the late-baroque form called the Sonata da Chiesa—four movements alternately Slow, Fast, Slow, Fast. The last work heard before intermission was the Sonata for Flute and Continuo in D-Major by Johann Sebastian’s second-eldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and shows, in its three-movement plan and effervescent melodic style, the direction music was to take after the father’s death.
A three-movement Sonata for Flute and Continuo in C-Major by Carl Friedrich Abel opened the second half of the program, followed by the brilliant (and brilliantly played) Toccata in C of Johann Froberger. The toccata is a work of intoxicating melodic figuration that clearly betrays Froberger’s strong Italian influences. Three arias by Johann Sebastian Bach — “Bete, bete aber auch dabei” (Cantata 115), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (Cantata 100), and “Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee suesse” (Cantata 211)— closed the program.
Flutist Christa Pehl is a performer of great talent. Her accomplishments, musical and otherwise, at such an young age, are staggering, including fellowships from Princeton and Northwestern universities, researching and performing music for Public Broadcasting documentaries, and making herself an expert on both modern and early music. But the first piece we heard her play, the J. S. Bach sonata, never came completely together. The flauto traverso (predecessor of the modern flute) just doesn’t feel “right” for this work. In any event, despite her mastery of the instrument, there were some really awkward moments, especially in passages in the lower register, which both did not project and sounded “muddy.” I found the two fast movements particularly unsatisfying. They sounded hasty, almost frantic. It’s fine to play Bach briskly, but not when each member of the ensemble has his or her own conception of the rhythm.
The viola da gamba piece I frankly do not get. First, it is a work that may well have been originally conceived for the violin, was later transcribed (by Bach) for the viola da gamba, even later (by Pablo Casals) for the cello, and Ms. Kuhn struggled to play it on the baroque cello. Thus it is a piece three-times removed from its original format. Second, the viola da gamba is an instrument very different from the cello in that it has more strings (probably seven in the case of the Bach sonatas) and it has frets (as on a guitar). The cello has, of course, no frets and only four strings. This makes the piece, as musicians say, a “bear” to subdue on the cello, its awkward shifts (to different positions on the strings) alone making it technically terrifying and an interpretive nightmare.
Third, the interactive relationship between the cello and the harpsichord, one that is more than simply melody with accompaniment, is a strange one. The harpsichord at times tinkles away in the upper register like Tweety Bird while the cello is left to grumble along like the bear in Petrushka. At times I wondered if the whole cello line were not intended to be played an octave higher.
Ms. Kuhn faced these challenges with courage and stoic determination but she could not avoid some insecurities in intonation and murky places in the faster passages, so much easier to execute on the viola da gamba. In the future, she would do well to take better command of the tempos and rhythmic conception of a piece whenever she appears in a solo role. As anyone who has ever “taken” an instrument in junior high knows, every instrument has its idiosyncrasies. A trombone, for example, must have the amplitude of rhythmic conception that allows its player to breathe, whereas a harpsichord is literally a machine for playing the harp.
The harpsichord has, of course, its own problems, but they are not the ones of the cello. Mr. Baratz was merciless in enforcing tempos that seemed impossible for the cello to accommodate. At one point in the last movement, he was almost a full measure ahead of Ms. Kuhn.
Six Little Preludes
The polymathic Lewis R. Baratz — who has a PhD in musicology, was a Fulbright Scholar, is a Fellow of the Belgian-American Educational Foundation, has written widely on musical topics, and earns his keep as a certified project manager and the vice-president of an informational-technology consulting firm — was featured in two solo numbers. In the first half, he gave us the Six Little Preludes of J. S. Bach, of which no. 6 is probably the best known. In the second, he played the Froberger Toccata in C. Both of these, though diminutive, were sensitively played and, in the Froberger, he exhibited spellbinding technique. Easily the highpoint of the afternoon were the “Gallant-style” flute sonatas by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (written presumably for Frederick the Great of Prussia, himself a fine composer and flute player) and Carl Friedrich Abel. These two three-movement works are written in the lighter, more melodious style that succeeded J. S. Bach. As I listened to them, the words attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald came repeatedly to mind: “Somewhere it’s glittering.” Well, that “somewhere” was right in front of me. Everything came together: the velvety tone of the flute, the balance of the ensemble, the choice of tempos, the interaction between flute and harpsichord. In these pieces, I was impressed by Ms. Kuhn. So often, the continuo instrument is thought of as ancillary, the fifth wheel on a car. But Ms. Kuhn demonstrated how important the continuo player is in clarifying the harmonic structure (similar to the bass in a jazz ensemble), in making it easier for the soloist to convey the melody, and in balancing out the flute and harpsichord to create a rich, homogeneous ensemble sound.
Da Capo Arias
For the three da-capo arias from Bach cantatas that closed the program, the ensemble was joined by Lara Carr, a graduate of Westminster Choir College, where she studied with that dedicated grande-dame of voice pedagogy, Laura Brooks Rice. Ms. Carr is possessed of a full, rich, dark soprano voice that has yet to reach its full maturity. She negotiated the sometimes capricious demands of Bach’s vocal lines with aplomb and consistently good intonation. The only shortcoming was her diction. German is not a language for the faint of heart. Particularly in singing, it demands explosive consonants and spaces between syllables. One should, for example, not pronounce the German word mit-ten as the English mitt’en.
One niggling criticism that perhaps only I found silly was the use of a cup as a prop in the Coffee Cantata. One of Bach’s few secular vocal works, it is a zany piece that almost invites hamming it up. But little is served, either musically or comedically, by standing like the statue of a Vestal Virgin holding a sacramental libation cup. Even the most linguistically challenged can be trusted to intuit that coffee in a Bach aria is the same coffee you put in a cup.
Johann Sebastian Bach often added the abbreviation S. D. G. to his autographs — Soli deo gloria — “to God alone the Glory.” In this secular age, the idea of music (with the exception of certain kinds of Rock and Rap music) as mindless entertainment is widespread. Music of former times, intended to serve specific purposes and have a defined place in the sociology or spirituality of the period, now free-floats as background music to the tedium of daily life.
Indeed, living as we do in a cosmopolitan area, it is easy to forget that the majority of people have never heard a concert of early music and probably think that the Baroque is an early stage of Chapter 7 bankruptcy. That’s one reason why the fine musicians who devoted themselves to the preparation of this Bach Banquet richly deserve the warm reception they received. By conjuring the spirits of these dead composers and parading them before an appreciative if disparate audience on a Sunday afternoon in Kingston, they showed these works of early music in all their Power and their Glory.
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