Superb musicianship elevates a basically Bach opener at Rockport Chamber Music Festival

June 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm

By Keith Powers

Music of Johann Sebastian Bach launched the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Friday night.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival opened its 32nd season Friday evening in the Shalin Liu Performance Center with an all-Bach program and gala festivities.

The highlights—musical highlights, at least, as much of the tuxedo-and-gown affair was spent on speechifying to honor supporters and partying elegantly—included a duo piano setting of Bach concertos, with Peter Serkin pairing with RCMF artistic director David Deveau, and a terrific arrangement by the string ensemble A Far Cry of chorales and fugues.

Both Bach concertos, in C minor (BWV 1060) and C major (BWV 1061), were composed for other instruments, and have been arranged in multiple settings since. They were created and performed during Bach’s time as leader of the Collegium Musicum, a secular ensemble in Leipzig he conducted and composed for in addition to his church duties.

Serkin and Deveau sat at opposite sides of the modest stage, with a dozen or so members of A Far Cry between them. The C minor, probably written for solo strings, starts slowly, its Allegro marking belying a deliberate tempo. This is ensemble work with neither soloist standing out, although the keyboard parts are witty and complex. Striking for its unusual approach was the middle movement, with the strings offering pizzicato accompaniment to a lovely duet keyboard aria. The pizzicato was broken only by two long drone pitches, solemn and breathtaking, which underlined what must have been a climactic moment of the aria in the composer’s mind.

The C major had more substance for the soloists and decidedly less for the ensemble. Written for two harpsichords, who duel antiphonally throughout in detailed fashion, the string ensemble is reduced to continuo support for the most part, and even sits (stands, in this case) silently for the entire middle movement and most of the finale.

The keyboard work was exquisite, justifying the presence of two prodigious piano artists. The antiphonal writing was not call-and-response, but an interlocking set of figures that often had the keyboardists alternating individual notes. Sitting at opposite ends of the stage, an entire ensemble between them, it was a grand feat of self-conducting. The finale, a fugue whose first two parts are introduced by the soloists, finally embraced the strings again, who rejoin the pianos for an elegant conclusion.

A Far Cry’s unique arrangement of various chorales and fugues sat between the two concertos. Taking a set of variations from the St. Matthew Passion, and weaving rearranged fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, A Far Cry re-imagined Bach in a way that maintained the master’s order, harmony and expansive musical mind. The chorale was a variant on the hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (likely known to a certain generation as Simon and Garfunkel’s ingenious American Tune). It was repeated in four unison versions, each slightly different, as Bach does in the Passion. Interspersed were three fugues from the WTC in different complementary keys; at the conclusion came another fugue (technically Ricercar à 6, from The Musical Offering).

The music was simple and direct, but the playing was technically precise and thoroughly laced with a careful exploration of every dynamic possibility. It was a classic case where the notes could have been any student exercise, but the playing was pure musicianship. The Ricercar seemed a toss-away coming at the conclusion, but the rest of the arrangement was soundly conceived, and came off for all the world as if Bach himself conjoined these individual pieces.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival continues through July 14. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Superb musicianship elevates a basically Bach opener at Rockport Chamber Music Festival”

  1. Posted Jun 12, 2013 at 12:11 am by Lisa Hahn

    Thoughtful and well written review. I take issue with the Musical Offering ricercar as a “toss away”, as I thought it lent much substance to the evening with its interlocking fugual lines.