Since a summer festival’s all-Bach opening concert is likelier to be chestnut-filled than challenging, it was a pleasant and engaging surprise that Aston Magna’s 42nd opener, an all-Bach affair (J.S. and C.P.E) was admirably and gratifyingly challenging, emotionally and intellectually. Thursday night’s concert at the Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis University was the first of three performances—as is usual for Aston Magna, they will take the program on the road to Annandale-on-Hudson, New York and Great Barrington.
Beethoven can be imagined as breaking out of prison to discover new countries of expression. C.P.E. Bach has something Beethovenian about him, but he never quite breaks out. He lavishly decorates, or even defaces, his cell, but doesn’t transcend his context. He sought to bring Empfindsamkeit to his music, a new kind of emotionally acute and subjective sensibility. Depending on the piece and performance, this can manifest itself as enthusiasm, quirkiness, or even morbidity. This makes for fascinating, if demanding, music, especially in the pieces written near the end of his life. On this occasion we heard two pieces from that period. The Quartet in D Major, Wq. 94, for keyboard, flute and viola, was written in his death year, 1788, when he was 74 years old (Haydn was 52 and Mozart 32 in that year), but if Bach was short on energy in his old age it does not show here. It has a traditional fast-slow-fast set of movements, but is shot through with sudden dramatic gestures and unexpected outbursts. The second movement is especially compelling, with phrases gapped with tense silences, and the third movement’s “allegro di molto” might possibly be charming if the passagework weren’t so aggressive. But Bach was never aiming at charm—instead, he was aiming for maximal expression, and succeeds in creating a world of extremity that is just held together by its formal structure. The Quartet’s instrumentation is notable; keyboard, flute and viola, with an optional cello part were implied but not written out, and not played at this performance. Peter Sykes produced a particularly lithe and cushioned sound from the pianoforte, matching the soft-edged but spirited attacks of Christopher Krueger’s baroque flute. This combination might have been a little mushy if not for Anne Black’s powerful viola, producing a tone that was a bit reedy and full of bow friction, giving the ensemble a strong but flexible. It was a conversational and attentive performance, with tempos that often pushed forward to make their point and then subsiding.
The restlessness of the Phantasie-Sonate in F-sharp Minor, Wq. 67 is visible simply by the reading the tempo markings in the program: Sehr traurig und ganz langsam (very sad and very slowly) – Allegretto – Largo – Adagio – Largo – Adagio – Allegro – Allegretto – Adagio – Allegretto – Largo – Allegro. The emotional content of piece is even greater and more dramatic, but has less structure to hold it together. Written in 1787, its primary tool of unification is to return obsessively to the pulsating opening gesture of the very first moments. It is wildly changeable in material but uniformly intense in approach. The impression at the end is not of a formally organized whole, but of waves of emotional intensity forcibly shaped into melody and harmony. It is written rather idiosyncratically for piano and violin. The piano carries most of the musical weight, while the violin comments rhetorically alongside the piano, at times italicizing the keyboard’s lines, at other times bursting in with great surprising double-stops. The piece is astonishing, even grotesque in its dramatic insistence and its extreme contrasts. In this piece Sykes brought an operatic and brooding quality to the keyboard. Violinist Dan Stepner did the most with an unusual part, providing commentary and drama in equal measure.
The Sonata in F Major for bass recorder, viola and continuo, Wq. 163, was written when the composer was 44 and is a rather more modest piece, though still filled with melodic and harmonic quirks. The bass recorder has very few pieces in its solo repertoire, being an instrument of hushed charm and introversion. Sykes, Krueger and Stepner performed in something of a mismatched marriage. As they traded melodies back and forth, Stepner’s viola was warm and outgoing but just a bit more forward than Krueger’s beautiful but bashful garnet newel-post of a recorder, while Sykes gently supported both, careful of the fragile balance. The composer’s voice was recognizable as that same almost anguished writer of the Phantasie, but more engaging and a bit less neurotic. The piece couldn’t help sounding a bit slight in its context, but it was a welcome contrast.
If one is looking for a source of the anxiety of expression in C.P.E. Bach’s music, you could do worse than to look at the piece that formed the half of the concert that was devoted to J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering, BWV 1079. Famously inspired by a melody from Frederick the Great, this collection of two ricercares, 10 canons and a trio sonata is formally uncompromising and often exhilarating. Frederick’s melody is dark and challenging, a dominated by an extended chromatic descent after outlining a minor arpeggio. It is neither ingratiating like the melody of the Goldberg Variations nor insipid theme like that of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations; the variety of purposes to which Bach puts this difficult material is astonishing. Sykes, Stepner, Krueger and Brown were joined by viola da gambist Laura Jeppesen in realizing this massive (45 minute) excursus on a single theme. The performance’s emotional core was in the ten canons, each of which had a distinct and contrasting personality as the players mixed and matched together. Stepner and Black were almost dueling with one another in the canon at the unison; the Canon in augmentation and contrary motion was tangled and knotty and modern sounding, evoking a slowed-down Harrison Birtwhistle. The famous modulating canon was the radiant center of the work, starting low and muddy, then mounting, falling and mounting higher as if travelling over rolling hills, the players’ tones brightening and the tempo just slightly increasing giving a sense of the world opening up. The trio sonata was placed in the middle of the canons, a less rigorous exploration of the theme, functioning as a resting point. There was conversation in this music, but mostly that of colleagues agreeing with one another, as opposed to the contentious conversations Bach’s son gave us in the first half. Sykes opened the second half alone with the three-voice Ricercare, playing with a ringing tone and much detachment, somewhat clinically setting out the first explorations of the piece. The concluding six-voice Ricercare was played by all five players (Sykes taking two voices), which was the only unsatisfying moment of the performance. The music is complex enough that the addition of multiple timbres, the problem of balancing voices, and the difference between the keyboard’s decay and the sustain of the other instruments made much of the central part of the piece too dense to follow; the vertical combinations were simply too unbalanced and overly colored to be heard clearly, and the horizontal lines are often too similar to one another to compensate.
The large audience nearly filled the Slosberg Center, and the effort and concentration required to attend to this music did not drain the enthusiasm offered the performers at the end of the evening. If all this sounds like too much work, rest assured that Aston Magna will also present less rigorous concerts going forward, including an intriguing evening devoted to vice. For this reviewer, it was refreshing to go out into a summer evening feeling a bit tired, but mentally invigorated.