in: Reviews

May 3, 2014

Music from the Bachs

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Four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons, all of them trained by their father, made significant careers as performing musicians and composers. In a concert on Wednesday, April 30th at the Second Church in West Newton, Newton Baroque presented a varied and interesting program of vocal and instrumental works by all four. The eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), an organ virtuoso, found employment at Dresden, then at Halle, and finally in Berlin. His Sinfonia in D minor for two flutes, strings, and continuo was a mixture of new and old: a freely unfolding Adagio characterized by odd modulations and offbeat whisperings followed by a stern Allegro in strict fugal style. Such a piece might have served as an instrumental Gradual between the Epistle and the Gospel at a Mass in Catholic Dresden. The excellent ensemble of period instrumentalists consisted of Mary Oleskiewicz and Na’ama Lion, flutes; Alexander Woods and Cynthia Freivogel, violins; Sarah Darling, viola; Sarah Freiberg, cello; and Anne Trout, double bass. Newton Baroque’s founder and music director Andrus Madsen conducted from the harpsichord. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-96) served as Kapellmeister at the court of Bückeburg in Saxony and veered toward the Italianate styles of Mozart, Gluck, and his own younger brother Johann Christian. His cantata “Die Amerikanerin” (The American Girl) for soprano, strings, and continuo was set to a libretto by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, a German critic and poet of the “Sturm und Drang” movement. His text has a lover feverishly imagining his beloved lost in a virgin forest in a strange land, inhabited by tigers, snakes, scorpions, and monsters. Julia Steinbok’s powerful soprano, with crisp high notes, a solid low range, and wide expressive vocabulary, easily encompassed the cantata’s shifting moods, from the tuneful opening stanzas in galant style to the dramatic arioso of the central accompanied recitative and the chromatically-tinged final embrace of death by the two lovers. A simile aria from Johann Christian Bach’s serenata “L’Endimione” (Endymion), first performed in London in 1772, calls for quite another kind of virtuosity. Here Diana warns against the perils of love, which the unsuspecting innocent should flee as the dove flees an eagle’s talons. The conceit inspired a breathtaking contest of birdlike warbling for soprano Steinbok and obbligato flutist Mary Oleskiewicz, ending with a joint cadenza in melting thirds.

The Trio Sonata in C minor (Wq 16/1), subtitled “Gespräch zwischen einem Sanguineus et Melancholicus (Conversation Between a Sanguine and a Melancholy Temperament) was a rare excursion into program music for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). A keyboard virtuoso, composer, and author of a much-admired treatise on the playing of keyboard instruments, he was court harpsichordist to Frederick the Great in Berlin before taking a post in Hamburg as director of music in the city’s five principal churches. Representing the two humors, violinists Woods (Sanguineus) and Freivogel (Melancholicus) set forth contrasting musical motives in the opening Allegro, with sudden stops and interruptions as cheerfully tuneful motives tried to overcome mournful sighs. The two moods were paired contrapuntally in the Adagio, finally joining together with similar themes in the Allegro finale. For the keyboard accompaniment, Madsen changed to a fortepiano, similar to an instrument Carl Philipp Emanuel might have played at Berlin.

Cesare e Cleopatra by Kapellmeister Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-59) was performed at the opening in 1742 of the Royal Berlin Opera House; at its 250th anniversary celebration the opera was performed once again. In keeping with Italian practice, the role of Caesar envisioned either a castrato or a female singer in a trouser role. “Voglio strage / E sangue voglio” (I want punishment / And I want the blood) employed all the clichés of the rage aria: wide range, swooping motives in imitation of trumpet calls (here imitated by the violins), instrumental tremolos depicting boiling anger. Steinbok triumphed with the expressive power and clarity of her voice.

After the intermission, we heard a beautiful work by Johann Christian Bach, the Quartet in E flat major for two violins, viola, and bass (i.e. cello and a figured bass part for keyboard), actually involving five instruments including the fortepiano. There were just two movements: a melliflous Largo, and an Allegro con spirito in classic binary form, its imitative opening dissolving into free melodic exchange among the parts. Madsen returned to the harpsichord for the final piece on the program, the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor (Wq 17) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, in which he functioned both as continuo player in ripieno (tutti) sections, playing from a figured bass part, and as an accomplished soloist in concertino or solo sections. In the opening Allegro, virtuoso figuration work alternating with more lyrical passages for the soloist contrasted with clear thematic statements from the ensemble. As the movement continued, a more equal distribution of thematic interest resulted in a closely coordinated exchange between soloist and ensemble. The second movement, Un poco adagio, was a long-breathed aria developed in alternation by the violins and, in ornamented form, by the harpsichord. The final Allegro on a stalwart unison theme with more virtuoso fireworks for the harpsichord brought the program to a joyous conclusion. Newton Baroque brought us a very enjoyable program of seldom-performed music, thoughtfully put together and skillfully performed by a top-notch ensemble.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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