From Bach to Beethoven

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In Carmel concerts are often performed with instruments set up to 18th century specifications and occasionally with modern instruments. On the Thursday concert five Brandenburg Concertos were performed as they might have been in Bach’s time, that is, one person to each part in the score. Only period instruments were played. On Friday, conductor Paul Goodwin opened the concert with the remaining Brandenburg, the first. It was played in the modern style, with augmented string sections, modern wind and brass instruments, and a higher pitch than is thought to have been used 300 years ago. This raise in pitch creates a greater tension in the sound, giving it more brilliance and power. Lower tuning pitch seems to create a gentler and more intimate sound. Our ancestors used natural materials such as “gut” strings as contrasted with today’s strings such as tungsten wound with silver. The only nod to the period was concertmaster Peter Hanson’s use of a piccolo violin, about 1/3 smaller than a normal violin and tuned three notes higher, to play the solo violin parts.

This modern approach to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 was to accommodate a unique pairing with a work by Benjamin Wallfisch commissioned especially for this Festival occasion. This audience heard the world premiere of a work that weaves between movements of Bach’s Concerto. British film composer Benjamin Wallfisch was the choice for this season’s commission. Son of the previous concertmaster Libby Wallfisch, he comes from a distinguished line of generations of musicians.

Wallfisch provided a short work in three parts, which can be played alone, or as in this concert, with each part inserted between movements of the Brandenburg Concerto. He titles his work “Margrave Interludes,” a reference to the dedicatee of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos of 1721, the Margrave of Brandenburg. The result was a very clever and comfortable combining of two composers separated by 294 years. The transitions were smooth and moved easily from one composer to the other. In fact, I missed one transition completely and suddenly realized they were in the next movement. Wallfisch draws on the gestures and motives from Bach’s work, and though he writes in a modern idiom without the tonality of Bach, the sounds are not so different. In fact there might be more dissonances in Bach than in Wallfisch.

The performance overall was very good. The opening of the Bach allowed the horns to shine early on. In the final Minuet of Bach the three trios sounded delightful, first with two oboes and bassoon, the second featuring the strings, and the third a strong horn duet with oboe trio on the bass line. All were outstanding.

With the full orchestra available for this concert, and all tuned to modern pitch, it seemed logical to further the “Bach, Bohemia and Beyond” programming theme with a modern work by the Transylvanian composer György Ligeti. His Romanian Concerto from 1951 reflects the composer’s early interest in folk music of central Europe. It’s a short, four-movement symphonic work, a lively and toe-tapping piece, with sound images of gypsy fiddling and klezmer band. The offstage horn is a reference to the alphorn that the composer had heard in the Carpathian Mountains. Here, Ligeti calls for the natural horn, the horn without valves of Bach’s time. There was excellent playing throughout the orchestra and the musicians seemed to enjoy their efforts. Peter Hanson tossed off the violin solos with verve. Colorful percussion sounds added to the gaiety of the work.

Folk-inspired sounds of Romania by Ligeti proved to be a good preparation for the music that followed the intermission, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. In the sunny key of A Major, the Festival Orchestra briskly stepped into the early 19th century and even vibrato was seen in the strings. The orchestra found the spirit of the Seventh with its rhythmic energy probably derived from dance. It’s difficult for this listener to remain calmly seated when the work is played well.

The performance was off to an excellent start in the introduction, where the regal oboe sounds of Gonzalo Ruíz caught the attention of listeners as the strings articulated the scale passages clearly. The following Vivace had a beautiful wind balance, with each solo statement clearly heard in the back rows of the hall. But the strings lacked a warm and cohesive sound, which can be a result of the acoustics. The following Allegretto is a high point of the symphony. Conductor Goodwin brought out the drama and poignancy while moving the incessant rhythm forward, and this performance was wonderful.

The third movement presto is so enjoyable when it is so well played as it was here, but then Beethoven requires repetitions that seem overdone. Fortunately the mood swiftly changes to the effervescent final movement, where the orchestra almost breaks into dance. The energy and enthusiasm of the performance was clearly felt by listeners.

This concert closes the first week of the Festival and can be heard again in the second week on Friday, July 31.

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Archived in these categories: 20th Century, Baroque, Carmel Bach Festival, Classical Era, Concerto, Orchestral, Strings.
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