Bach and All Bach and All

Julius Who?If the name of Julius Reubke means nothing to you, that’s understandable; mine, however, is the even greater guilt. I’d seen the name for years, on posters and programs, record catalogs and small entries in encyclopedias, always connected with a single work, a long organ sonata of churchly mien. That had always been enough to conjure an image of something grinding from around the dark and gloomy 1890s, piling up the chromatic counterpoints in the manner of, say, Max Reger. It was Reger’s Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H — root canal set to music — that preceded Reubke’s sonata on Paul Jacobs’ program at Disney Hall on a recent Sunday night, an exhilarating evening and a learning experience as well.

I learned above all that I had miscalculated Herr Reubke’s history — and, therefore, the shape and sound of his music — by several decades. His time had come and gone much earlier in the 19th century; born in 1834, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, leaving behind two large sonatas, one for organ and another for piano. Most important in that brief lifetime, he was a protégé of Franz Liszt, and the big Organ Sonata I was hearing that Sunday for the first time in my 82 years, with surprise and delight, simply glistens with the Master’s imprint.

To that sonata, Reubke attached a program, based on a complex paraphrase of Psalm 94. Pleas for Divine Vengeance and declarations of Faith and Trust resound; the entire work is built, in the Lisztian manner, out of a single theme undergoing transformation, building toward a climactic fugue, something of a ringer for Liszt’s own Piano Sonata — a resemblance in no way shameful. You had to marvel, at the power of the work and at the tragedy it entails. There is great beauty here, underlined in Jacobs’ obviously loving registration; its power builds with the assurance of a composer in command of his craft, yet less than a year from a wasting death. According to the all-too-brief biography in Grove’s Dictionary, the Reubke Piano Sonata is an even more adventurous work than the one for organ; I await with some impatience the package from Amazon.

Inevitably, BachThe shadow of Sebastian Bach fell upon most of the music making last week, either in the celebration (most of the time) or in the defacement (as in the aforementioned Reger abomination). Paul Jacobs’ organ program included one of Bach’s lovely trio sonatas, crisp and elegant and intricate and beautifully detailed under this remarkable musician’s young fingers. It also included a Mendelssohn sonata, which also hovered agreeably close to the spirit of Bach: the influence of the chorale melody, the lapsing into recitative, the charming solemnity. There was more Bach as encores, two short pieces to send us home uplifted and happy.

Next night, the Monday Evening Concert laid claim to a relationship to Bach, although a sense of strain was sometimes evident. “Bach and the Music of Today” was the overall title; Kent Nagano was listed as curator; pianist and conductor Ichiro Nodaira was out front in all but one of the works. His credentials as a performer of Bach might bear examining. He began the program with a pair of preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, went on to a rather hectic reading of the Chromatic Fantasy, pedaled as heavily as if some Chopin nocturne were the matter at hand, and ended with Ferruccio Busoni’s dreary, over-upholstered piano transcription of the Chaconne from the D-minor Partita (for solo violin), as false to the Bach original, and to the sound of its period, as the Reger noted above.

In between, there was music of — and truer to — its own time: the delightfully intricate Viola, Viola (for just those) by George Benjamin; the deliciously rowdy Fantaisie Mécanique by Unsuk Chin; Kurt Rohde’s Double Trouble, a double concerto for violas and small ensemble; and Nodaira’s own Texture de Délire, a nicely atmospheric piece for small ensemble including electronics, 25 years old but certainly more up-to-date than Nodaira’s performances of Bach. Strange, that a musician who creates such attractive music in the spirit of Bach, which this short, attractive piece from 1982 surely is/was, performs the composer’s original conceptions so poorly.

Spreading the PassionNext day came the St. Matthew Passion, its dimensions respected and its spirit as well. Under Martin Haselboeck, our local baroque ensemble known as Musica Angelica has grown in prestige and in programming ambition. Currently, they are joined with Haselboeck’s other group, his Orchester Wiener Akademie, in a tour of the Matthäuspassion that began in Mexico City, picks up choruses in various cities along the way, lands in Spain this weekend and ends up in Munich in time for Easter. Worth the trip? Yes.

Somewhat adrift in Pasadena’s acoustically iffy First United Methodist Church, with a cranny-filling audience of 800, the chorus — a too-small unit from John Alexander’s Pacific Chorale forced into inadequate space — faced the major problem: There was just no sound to the sound. Haselboeck solved one problem neatly, bringing soprano Christine Brandes out front to fill in the boys’ voices in the opening tripartite chorus, but the two other parts — the wonderful “Who?” “Where” back-and-forth and the later “Donner und Blitz” that sets a hearer’s teeth on edge — were as formless as last week’s Nudelsuppe.

The soloists made amends, handsomely. Brandes, an old Philharmonic friend, held the room breathless with her “Aus liebe,” as did Klaus Mertens in the final aria, his rich bass-baritone beautifully twined around the plangent lament of William Skeen’s viola da gamba — the sound Bach used one time only in each of his Passions, at the moment of Jesus’ death. An excellent young countertenor, Spanish-born Carlos Mena, took on the alto arias; if he didn’t quite break hearts with the “Erbarme dich,” I don’t know who can since we lost Kathleen Ferrier. Andreas Karasiak sang the Evangelist; Stephen Salters, the words of Jesus — both eloquently. Overall, the greater triumph belonged to the excellent Haselboeck, for his taut, beautifully shaded, forthright, dramatic reading. That man knows his Bach.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >