In another 75 years I might — just might — run out of things to say about Johann Sebastian Bach. Then again, I might not. The evidence is at hand that the Bach of 75 years ago — the Bach, say, of the footloose orchestral transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski and, for that matter, Arnold Schoenberg; of the lumbering, groaning sounds that passed for spiritual encounters in Albert Schweitzer‘s organ playing; the prissy rhythmic vagaries in Wanda Landowska’s performances on her oversize monster of an inauthentic harpsichord — existed on a different expressive plane from the Bach of Trevor Pinnock‘s ”Brandenburgs“ as delivered at UCLA’s Royce Hall last weekend. I also note with some trepidation that a ”world premiere“ recording now exists of the St. Matthew Passion in its form as it was first returned to the world, after a century of neglect, in the famous revival under Felix Mendelssohn: with a chorus of 400, re-orchestrated, cut to ribbons and otherwise romanticized to convince the Berlin burghers of 1829 that Bach was of their number. Have the record companies truly run out of music? Firmly ensconced in his unchallenged place in the cosmos, Bach moves back and forth in time.
This year we celebrate the anniversary of Bach‘s death (July 28, 1750), but last week’s birthday (March 21, 1685) sparked a busy few days as well. I was sorry to have missed the annual Bach Festival at the First Congregational Church, but not so sorry as I might have been if I hadn‘t attended the climactic event of last year’s festival and left midway in considerable anguish. (”When fa joins mi,“ a wise man wrote, ”the faithful flee.“)
The handsome domed space of the Second Church of Christ Scientist just north of USC — its paint flaking, its floorboards creaking — cries out for physical restoration to masterpiece status. It achieved that status, at least audibly, on a recent Saturday, with the Da Camera Society‘s ”Historic Sites“ presentation of the New York–based baroque ensemble called Rebel (accent on second syllable, named after an obscure French composer only now turning up on disc), which did great service to J.S. Bach by playing some of his own good music and some really bad music by others of his time. Included in the latter category was a comic piece by son Carl Philipp Emmanuel in which violinists ”Sanguineus“ and ”Melancholicus“ played weird and silly comic tunes at one another, and a ”Suite No. 5,“ clumsily written almost to the point of parody but which, however, some misguided scholars have attempted to ascribe to the good Sebastian. Two works by the ”authentic“ Bach, including the miraculous Suite No. 2, delivered the ultimate judgment on the preceding music. The flute solos, nicely played by Matthias Maute, circled like small, pure angels to bestow benediction on the vast surrounding space.
A day later, Trevor Pinnock and his English ”Concert“ (a legitimate variant, apparently, of the more customary ”Consort“) needed no sanctified ground to deliver their familiar benedictions: Bach’s ”Brandenburgs,“ all six, hovering endearingly in the Royce Hall air purified by their presence. All praise to the Brits — to Pinnock, and Roger Norrington, Andrew Parrott, the Tallis Scholars, etc. — for setting the sounds right in the world‘s vast and wondrous musical heritage. But is there something too clean, perhaps even bloodless, in the sheer exactitude of this meticulous, historically informed playing? One longs now and then for a little juice, for the oboe to sigh with audible pain over those miraculous dissonances in the First Brandenburg, for the flutes in the Fourth to giggle just a bit as they pace off their airy measures. (In a concession to acoustic problems, Jeff Kahane and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra had used the louder transverse flutes in their performance of No. 4 earlier this season; Pinnock used the stipulated softer recorders, and something was lost. Bach, after all, had no 1,829-seat house to deal with.) I had the feeling at times, in this generously laden afternoon’s worth of some of the best feel-good music the world has to offer, of being handed clean but empty pages, onto which I then must inscribe the wholeness of my own receptivity. Most performances at least provide hints. The ”Brandenburgs“ being what they are, however, I couldn‘t really begrudge the added task.
One further danger with these well-scrubbed, shiny-faced British performances is the impression they leave of an art form self-contained. Yet the overpowering strength of Bach, despite the neglect andor misrepresentation from ensuing generations, is the continuing hold his music has exerted throughout history and still does. No composer, not even Beethoven, challenges the strength of that hold. On Bach’s actual birthday last week, Leonard Stein took to the piano in the latest event in his ”Piano Spheres“ concerts to drive home just that fact. Two great works served to anchor his program, of almost exactly the same age but galaxies apart in style — the Sonata of Stravinsky and the Suite of Schoenberg — each a work of its time (the mid-1920s) and both throbbing with an inner Bach. In the Stravinsky you couldn‘t miss the crystalline, terse clarity of one of the keyboard toccatas; Schoenberg offered his homage to any of those haunting slow arias where the wayward right-hand melody floats toward infinity above the insistent left. There was all that on Leonard Stein’s program to engage (mostly with success) the pianist‘s 83-year-old fingers, along with diversions by Shostakovich, Birtwistle and the madcap Conlon Nancarrow, and, as final benediction, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, in which Bach addresses his world in language more profound than it will ever fully comprehend.
The Piano Spheres series has been a distinguished addition to our concert life: five pianists every year, each in programs challenging and dangerous, including several commissioned works, in the lovely setting of Pasadena’s small Neighborhood Church, enhanced further by splendid Fazioli pianos brought over each time by the noble David Abell. Now David has given up the Fazioli franchise, which included cartage costs, and the loss of that sum is enough to put the concert series in jeopardy. Once again, virtue is in desperate need of reward.
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