The 2015 Aston Magna season concluded at Bard College’s Olin Auditorium on Friday with a Bach/Vivaldi program. Not all the Bach was what you would expect, though.
Mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore is a Baroque music specialist who has performed with Aston Magna in the past. She came on board for two solo cantatas. One was Bach’s BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Just Resist Sin). The other was by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), a first cousin to J.S.’s father. The family so esteemed Christoph’s Ach dass ich Wassers genug hätte (Oh that I Possessed Water Enough ((for my fountain of tears)) ) that it was part of a family collection, discovered only in 1999. Rentz-Moore has an exceptionally beautiful, rich voice, but it’s not very large and didn’t always carry above the instruments. When it did, it was a joy to hear. Despite the depressing texts on vile guilt and dreadful sin, both works were masterpieces, Christoph’s even more adventurous than Sebastian’s.
Daniel Stepner has decided that the work we know as J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, in D Minor, may have originated not as a solo violin concerto (in which form it has long been reconstructed and performed) but as a concerto grosso. His “speculative reconstruction” in this form seemed to this listener to prove the opposite. His concertino group consisted of only two violins, and they seldom did anything that a single violin couldn’t do, often trading parts of a phrase in an un-Bachlike manner. We know how Bach wrote for two violins and orchestra from his famous Double Concerto and this arrangement didn’t sound much like that scoring. However, the performance, with Stepner and Danielle Maddon as soloists, was quite lovely. Stepne succeeded more as a performer than as arranger.
I’m still surprised that I was willing to subject myself to another performance of Vivaldi’s highly repetitious yet somewhat inventive Four Seasons which I’ve been tired of hearing for decades. I was presuming that Stepner and his merry band would manage to inject some life into the music, and actually they did. They emphasized the pictorial elements in Vivaldi’s music, as in the wild playing of Winter’s first movement. Maddon and Stepner provided elaborate and satisfying embellishments for their slow movements; Edson Scheid was much more conservative with his slow movement solo in Summer, and Julie Leven decided that “Adagio molto” for her slow movement in Fall meant to keep the music almost inert. Having Rentz-Moore read English translations of the sonnets on which the music is based proved to be a mixed blessing, as I found her difficult to understand. Now that I’ve done my duty I hope I may be excused from hearing this piece for another decade.