Given the demands on his time, Johann Sebastian Bach frequently borrowed from earlier pieces, many of which have not survived: by some estimates, over 200 Weimar works are lost and only 15-20 percent of his Cöthen output survives. Tracing provenance may seem pedantic, but it helps inform us how this music did, and perhaps should, sound. Bach Rearranged, the first of Emmanuel Music’s 2015-16 Bach Reimagined, opened in Longy’s Pickman Hall Saturday. Ryan Turner’s thoughtfully offered settings and resettings of Johann Sebastian Bach—how his music was reincarnated in his own hands and how it has been shaped by other composers for modern ears. (BMInt’s related interview with Turner is here.)
The concert began with two pieces whose origins have been reevaluated and placed in very different realms. In pre-concert comments, John Heiss called the 1739 B-minor Orchestral Suite (S.1067) perhaps the best-known music for flute. He went on to note, however, that earlier sketches have been found setting the suite in A minor, suggesting it was written for a solo string instrument, perhaps a violin. Although many are better-acquainted with its Baroque predecessor, Christopher Krueger’s modern-flute performance of the suite presented a subdued rendition that I found entirely convincing: he seemed to customize a different voice for each of the movements (a vivid Bourée, a stately Polonaise, an ephemeral Badinerie), lending unique character and flavor to each dance. Turner’s orchestra provided ample support, although in privileging the soloist, he somewhat obscured the intricacies of the inner voices.
A reconstruction of the C-Major Concerto for Three Harpsichords (S.1064) was also part of this rethinking. The harpsichord concerti were frequently reworkings of earlier compositions; on Saturday , turner replaced the harpsichords with a violin reconstruction (S.1064R). In its more popular form, it’s difficult to distinguish the contribution of the three harpsichords. Replacing them with violins, however, results in a much more variety and color. The soloists lent distinct characteristics to their instruments: Heather Braun’s bold sound played nicely against Heidi Braun-Hill’s reserved, sleeker read; Rose Drucker produced a delicate, bejeweled vision. The three soloists fared well with the orchestra, although again the ensemble obscured the counterpoint, and despite the many successes of the performance, I found it difficult to hear nuances.
After intermission, Emmanuel Music returned with Stravinsky’s arrangement of four preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier (E Minor, C-sharp Minor, and B Minor from book I, F Major from book II). Excepting the extended B-Minor Fugue, which is set entirely for strings, Stravinsky arranges all the prel;udes for strings and the fugues for bassoon and clarinet quintet. The arrangements from the composer’s late output are frequently denigrated as the final feeble thoughts of an aging master. Yet Saturday’s performance revealed Stravinsky’s exquisite understanding of counterpoint and voicing: his arrangements follow the original WTC score very closely, with rare and wonderful exceptions—at times he adds an errant note or voice that emphasizes the extended harmonic palette Bach was experimenting in these pieces. His transcription for orchestra or wind ensemble bypasses the natural decay of a clavier or piano: suspended notes reveled in warm vibrato and swelled into unexpected and surprising dissonances that cannot be expressed on the keyboard. Stravinsky’s arrangements are sadly unknown: Christopher Hogwood published the first edition in 2011, and, as of today, no recordings exist (save for an uncredited one here). Turner led both ensembles with a delicate transparency; in the absence of a prominent soloist, the ensemble played with an even balance between the sections that tastefully allowed the harmonic novelties of Stravinsky’s arrangement to express themselves clearly; Saturday’s performance was a boon to lovers of both composers.
Pairing these arrangements with Ward Swingle’s iconic settings [example here] highlights the ways in which the 18th-century composer is indestructible. Arranged at roughly the same time as Stravinsky’s, Swingles’ work is satisfyingly clever and entertaining—a straight-faced chorus scats Bach’s works with straight tone. Slowly, the music wends its way from the original almost into the harmonic territory of mid-20th-century jazz, playfully inviting the listener to reimagine how Baroque music can function in a more popular context. Members of Emmanuel Music sang very much in the spirit of the famous Swinglers. At times, excited scooping or overzealous vibrato marred the deadpan charm, but the set provided a fun conclusion to an entertaining rethinking of Bach.
The second concert of the series, Bach Reconstructed, will feature a reconstruction of his lost St. Mark Passion, in Emmanuel Church on March 19, 2016.