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Decrying Germans & Brits Over Three Centuries


Hellen Callus (file photo)
Hellen Callus (file photo)

A Far Cry has gotten February going in a mostly Baroque frame of mind, in programs February 1st at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain and SuperGroundhogBowl Day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (the one we heard). It was also, according to the declaration of Crier Jesse Irons, more or less about royalty.

It started with music possibly written for his royal patron Frederick the Great of Prussia by this year’s tricentennial honoree Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, namely the Sinfonia in B flat, Wq. 182, No. 2 (also catalogued H. 658). Although not perhaps as much so as some of his other symphonic works, this piece gives ample evidence of Emanuel Bach’s penchant for “dark and stormy” coloration, sudden expressive harmonic shifts, and those dramatic pauses that so influenced Joseph Haydn’s writing. AFC carried all these kaleidoscopic changes with their customary aplomb, rapidly shifting from bounciness and brightness to moody darkness, to proto-Mozartean elegance and melancholy.

Next came an entry from Emanuel’s dad Sebastian, a somewhat speculatively stitched together viola concerto in E-flat, arranged by Wilfried Fischer from movements scattered across the Schmieder catalogue (169, 49 and 1053, to be precise) in an effort to recapture a work known to exist but that has been lost in this form. AFC was joined by soloist Helen Callus, English born but whose career has largely been spent in the US (she now teaches at USC in Los Angeles). The tempi taken in this piece were more stately than those of the symphony—it is interesting to note the greater precision with which Emanuel specified his tempi—and Callus displayed a richly plummy and silken tone, using a kind of hybrid of early and modern style that deployed some, but not overmuch, vibrato, with carefully nuanced dynamics and phrasing. This came especially forward in the very lightly accompanied slow movement, with its dreamy tune and several fascinating harmonic digressions. The orchestral accompaniment was well shaped, not overly deferential, and perfectly in character.

After intermission the purple robes came out again as Callus and AFC performed Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik, a work incredibly knocked out in a few hours on January 21, 1936 to mark the death the night before of King George V of England (whither Hindemith had gone planning to perform his viola concerto). In four short movements, it has remained popular, especially in the UK, for its use in the finale of the chorale that is widely heard to accompany the “Old Hundredth” (psalm, that is). The ensemble demonstrated its (and Hindemith’s) great mastery of string sonority and both’s strong affinity for Baroque esthetics. Callus displayed to perfection the viola’s unique keening qualities.

The remainder of the program was purely orchestral, and developed the English theme as well, first with Edward Elgar’s stunning Introduction and Allegro, op. 47, a work that cemented in place the “English sound” of string ensemble writing so successfully followed by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Butterworth et al. It is scored, interestingly, for a Baroque-style “concertino” string quartet and string orchestra ripieno, although the writing seldom allows the concertino group to stand out (or in this case, sit out, since the quartet in this performance was seated, in contrast to AFC’s erect deployment). The work as a whole can be read as a kind of extended prelude and fugue, though much else is going on in the Allegro besides the “devil of a fugue” Elgar claimed to have created. The orchestra’s performance was, again, characteristic and highly effective, with a stunning harp-like pizzicato moment in the Allegro.

The concert ended with yet another nod to royalty, this of the arguably fictitious sort, in the suite to Henry Purcell’s King Arthur. The overture was regal indeed, with precisely rendered dotted rhythms, with the rest of the numbers (six or seven, depending on whether you count both hornpipes as one or two movements) stylishly rendered. Dynamics were well modulated and controlled throughout, and in the more lyrical moments one could even get a strong whiff of the harpsichord, under the capable fingers of Leon Schelhase.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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