Emmanuel Music serves up Bach with several twists

October 4, 2015 at 7:47 pm

By David Wright

Riff on J.S. Bach? They wouldn’t dare.

But dare they did, Saturday night in the Longy School’s Pickman Hall, as Emmanuel Music—yes, that Emmanuel Music, Boston’s longtime keeper of the Bach flame—put a sleazy jazz beat under the master’s precious measures, substituted some musicologist’s speculation for his authentic music, and even brought in that horrible modern composer Igor Stravinsky, all of it under the all-too-candid title “Bach Rearranged.”

And the most shocking thing of all was: Everybody had a great time, including this reviewer.

Of course, Bach is the most arranged composer ever. No one else—not Gershwin, not even Lennon-McCartney—comes close. Musicians not only study his music, they want to play it, whether he wrote it for their instrument or not.

Listeners want to hear it in every context, too, from piano recitals, featuring Busoni’s lordly arrangements of Bach’s organ works, to CDs of Bachian beeps and boops on Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, to Top 40 radio, where Bach’s Minuet in G turned up a while ago with lyrics and a new title, “Lover’s Concerto.”

Precedent for it all came from the thrifty Thuringian himself, who met his employers’ insatiable demands for music with a recycling program an environmentalist might envy. Dances became cantatas, arias became concertos; a concerto for one solo instrument could turn up later with substantially the same music but with a different instrument as the star.

Saturday’s program, played to a crowd that overflowed the intimate hall, dipped into this ocean of repertoire at various points, including Bach arranging himself, music scholars reverse-engineering a lost Bach concerto, Stravinsky’s last tribute to the master, and for dessert, the doobie-doo Bach vocals with which the Swingle Singers lit up the pop charts in the 1960s.

Musicologists now believe that Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067, originated as a dance suite for strings in A minor, and that Bach fitted it later with a brilliant flute part (and a more flute-friendly key) to make the quasi-concerto we know today, with its famously saucy last movement titled Badinerie (Banter).

Playing modern instruments, but evidently informed by the clear tone and brisk tempos of the period-instrument ensembles, the Emmanuel musicians under their artistic director Ryan Turner sounded a bit tentative in this performance, consciously shaping the phrases instead of letting the music carry them forward.

In the solo part, Christopher Krueger, a noted exponent of both Baroque and present-day flutes, played with admirable style and agility, but his velvety tone on the modern flute was often masked by the strings.

The temperature in the room went up considerably when three violinists from the ensemble, Heather Braun, Heidi Braun-Hill and Rose Drucker, stepped forward to star in a full-toned, brilliant performance of Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D major, BWV 1064R.

The R in that number stands for “reconstructed.” It would be hard to imagine turning, say, the Sibelius violin concerto into a piano concerto, but Bach did that all the time with his own works in the genre, and today his arrangements for keyboard instruments are the only form in which many of these pieces survive. A cottage industry has sprung up among scholars to, in effect, unarrange the arrangements and restore some version of the violin originals.

It might seem like a dry academic exercise, but vibrant performances like the one Saturday make one feel nothing but gratitude for the effort. (The arranger was not credited, but this version was most likely the one by Wilfried Fischer in the New Bach Edition of 1970.)

The concerto as “contest,” including maybe even a bit of sibling rivalry for soloists Braun and Braun-Hill, delightfully raised the stakes in the first movement as the players alternately played toppers in solos and joined together in sonorous chordal passages.

Sisterhood proved powerful in another way in the Adagio, with the mood darkening to passion-style music in B minor and the soloists supporting each other in close, grief-stricken harmonies. Good cheer returned in the D major finale with an optimistic theme (possibly borrowed from one of the composer’s keyboard preludes) and episodes that featured each soloist in turn, performing dazzling feats on her instrument. The audience loved it.

In 1969, the ailing Stravinsky undertook what was to be the last composing project of his life, arranging four preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for an ensemble of strings and woodwinds. Maybe that should read strings or woodwinds, since the two groups never play together; in all but one case, the strings have the prelude, while the low-pitched wind group (three clarinets, bass clarinet, and two bassoons) play the fugues.

Composed with no thought of publication and ignored by Stravinsky scholars for decades, these arrangements finally saw print in an edition by Christopher Hogwood in 2011. Unlike Stravinsky’s earlier Baroque pastiche works, these versions hew closely to Bach’s text, and derive their fascination from the Russian master’s subtle, illuminating orchestrations.

Conductor Turner and the players reveled in the pieces’ variety of expression, from the dry wit of the Prelude and Fugue in E minor from Book I, with its unusual two-voice fugue drolly assigned to the two bassoons, to the darkly expressive string musings and organ-like low-wind sound of the triple fugue in C-sharp minor (Book I).

The fluid sound of divided strings in the F major Prelude (Book II) made one forget about keyboards entirely, and even the fugue in hopping gigue rhythm, for the clarinets only, had a steady flow to it. Strings performed both the Prelude and the Fugue in B minor (Book I), returning to passion-like expression with small swells and large crescendos, and chains of sobbing two-note slurs in the fugue.

It might seem like a long reach from Stravinsky’s late, private musical meditations to a 1963 hit album of jazzy Bach numbers, but as evidenced Saturday night, the happily-named Ward Swingle (1927-2015) was an illuminating arranger in his own right, and surely the godfather of the scatting, beat-boxing a capella groups that proliferate on college campuses today. With eight wordless voices, sometimes backed by drum set and string bass, and a big helping hand from J.S. Bach, Swingle could evoke moods from sassy to serene to celestial.

Saturday’s vocal octet—sopranos Margot Rood and Shari Wilson, altos Carrie Cheron and Margaret Lias, tenors Charles Blandy and Jonas Budris, and basses Jacob Cooper and Donald Wilkinson—led off the set with no conductor, deftly coordinating the pinging, ringing arpeggios of the familiar Prelude in C major from Book I of the WTC.

Next, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer threw down the challenge to the singers with a spirited, biting performance of the Gigue from the Suite No. 3 for Unaccompanied Cello. The tenors and basses responded with an equally articulate if more laid-back Swingle version, gently propelled by the suave brushwork of drummer Robert Schultz and the subtle beat of Bebo Shiu’s bass.

Wearing a red-and-black cocktail dress that contrasted with her black-clad colleagues, soprano Rood was evidently the girl singer with the band, and her rendition of the solo part in Bach’s Badinerie matched Krueger’s flute version run for run and arpeggio for arpeggio.

As Turner noted in remarks from the stage (and Stravinsky had amply demonstrated earlier), sustained tone can bring out expressive dissonances that are only implied on a keyboard instrument. Case in point: Bach’s poignant Sinfonia (or Three-Part Invention) No. 11 in G minor, its long notes blended with little vibrato, the tone color subtly shifting as the sung vowel changed from “ah” to “oo” and back again.

The jazz groove finally settled in for the program’s final piece, the familiar “Little” Fugue in G minor for organ, whose steady, flowing lines fairly beg to be bumped around by rocks in the stream, and even a splash of samba rhythm now and then. Schultz’s and Shiu’s eloquent brushes and pizzicato had their say, along with some syncopated hijinks from the singers.

It was enough to make a person want to put his feet up on the boomerang-shaped coffee table and watch some Steve Allen on the black-and-white TV. If that’s not historically-informed performance practice, what is?

Emmanuel Music will perform chamber works by Mendelssohn and Wolf October 25 and November 1 at Emmanuel Church. emmanuelmusic.org; 617-536-3356.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Emmanuel Music serves up Bach with several twists”

  1. Posted Oct 05, 2015 at 3:35 pm by John

    What a great review! Wright captured the spirit of the evening.