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The second ABS program of Bach’s ‘inspiration’ focuses on chamber music

Painting showing Dieterich Buxtehude playing a viol and seated beside Johann Adam Reincken at the keyboard
Painting showing Dieterich Buxtehude playing a viol and seated beside Johann Adam Reincken at the keyboard
by Johannes Voorhout, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented the second of their two Festival programs entitled Bach’s Inspiration. To the extent that this miniseries was a journey, that journey reached its culmination following the intermission with three of Bach’s own compositions. The first half of the evening was devoted to four of his Germanic predecessors, only one of whom, Dieterich Buxtehude, had been included in the first program.

ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas was absent from the stage last night, since all of the works on the program could be presented as chamber music, but he was still with the audience through the richly resourceful background essays he had prepared for the program book. The reduced resources made for a more intimate encounter with the music being performed. Even the sacred music seemed to be more directed at personal meditation, rather than the spectacle of ecclesiastic ritual.

The program began with a partita in A minor for two violins and continuo by Johann Adam Reincken. While Reincken is not as well known as Buxtehude, he is another musician that prompted Bach to make a journey on foot. Bach’s trip to listen to Reincken took place about four years before his celebrated 250-mile trek to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude’s concerts. He was still a student in Lüneburg at the time, and the distance to Hamburg was only 30 miles. However, Bach was studying organ with Georg Böhm at the time, and Bach was probably interested in not only listening to Reincken perform but also experiencing the massive sounds of the organ at St. Catharine’s Church.

The partita performed last night comes from Reincken’s published collection of six partitas entitled Hortus musicus (musical garden). Bach was familiar with this collection, and three of his keyboard works (the BWV 954 fugue in B-flat major, the BWV 965 sonata in A minor, and the BWV 966 sonata in C major) can be traced back to it. This collection may also have drawn him to the idea of the partita as a suite of dances. However, Reincken’s opening movement is far more ambitious than any of Bach’s preludes, providing virtuoso solo passages for not only the two violin parts (performed by Robert Mealy and Elizabeth Blumenstock) but also for the continuo player (in this case Kenneth Slowik on gamba). While this performance lacked the flamboyant instrumental and vocal coloration that opened the first Bach’s Inspiration concert with Johann Christoph Bach’s setting of verses from the Book of Revelation, the technical display of these three soloists in a quieter setting made for just as compelling an opening for last night’s program.

This was followed by Nicolaus Bruhns’ setting of verses from the Book of Psalms (five from Psalm 57 and five from Psalm 108, both songs of praise for God). This was scored for bass solo (Max van Egmond), violin (Blumenstock), and continuo (Corey Jamason on organ). This was another example of virtuosity in an intimate setting, more suitable for a private chapel than a full church or cathedral. While the verses are grouped in sections with different tempo markings, they are performed as a continuous flow without interruption. Thus, between van Egmond’s enthusiasm for the text and Blumenstock’s technical skills, this was music that bubbled over with exuberant praise for the Divine.

More somber was Buxtehude’s BuxWV 76 setting of Martin Luther’s German adaptation of the Nunc dimittis canticle. The verses were sung in alternation by alto (Judith Malafronte) and bass (van Egmond) voices against a rich fabric of contrapuntal lines for violin (Mealy), two gambas (Slowik and William Skeen), and violone (Steven Lehning). Thus, in this case, the virtuosity had more to do with the elegance of Buxtehude’s overall fabric than with the contributions of any individual performer. Luther’s text was then followed by a “Klaglied” (lament), whose text may have been written by Buxtehude himself. This entire section was sung as a solo by Malafronte.

The first half of the program concluded with a Bach cantata that turned out not to be by Bach. Meine Seele rühmt und preist (this my soul extols and praises) was listed in Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog as BWV 189, but it was later discovered to have been composed by Georg Melchior Hoffmann. This is one of two cantatas for solo tenor voice (Derek Chester) that had to be reassigned. (The second was actually by Georg Philipp Telemann. However, Bach did have a personal copy of Hoffmann’s composition and may well have been struck by the instrumental accompaniment for the tenor: recorder (Judith Linsenberg), oboe (Debra Nagy) and violin (Blumenstock). Those three instruments would figure significantly in the second of his “Brandenburg” concertos.

It thus seemed appropriate that, just as Hoffman’s cantata concluded the first half of the program, that particular “Brandenburg” concerto (BWV 1047 in F major) should conclude the all-Bach second half. Linsenberg and Nagy returned, this time joined by Mealy on violin and John Thiessen on trumpet. Given the marked difference in the dynamic ranges of these four instruments, the soloists were particularly good at maintaining the right blending of their respective contributions. Since this was a chamber music setting, each ripieno part was taken by a single player, Blumenstock on first violin, Katherine Kyme on second violin, Jason Pyszkowski on viola, Lehning on violone, and a continuo of Skeen on cello and Jamason on harpsichord.

This rich collection of instruments was preceded and complemented by two more intimate works, one instrumental and one vocal. The instrumental selection was the C minor trio sonata from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079). This was scored for flute (Sandra Miller), violin (Blumenstock), and continuo (Slowik on cello and Jamason on harpsichord). The story behind BWV 1079 is well known. Frederick the Great invited Bach to visit his residence at Potsdam (where Emanuel Bach was a court musician) to show off his new fortepiano. He picked out a theme that was triadic on the way up and chromatic in its descent, suggesting that Bach use it for a fugue. Instead, after returning to Leipzig, Bach created a whole collection of compositions. The full theme does not appear very often in the trio sonata, but Bach seems to have used that part of the collection to explore the implications of Frederick’s long chromatic line.

More fascinating was the vocal selection, another exercise in pleasing a royal patron. This time the setting was Köthen, where Bach served Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen as Kapellmeister. Because Leopold was a Calvinist, Bach’s Köthen period involved some of his richest composition of secular music. This included a rather peculiar secular cantata Amore traditore (BWV 203) about faithless love. This was written almost as a double concerto for harpsichord and baritone, and Leopold may have sung it with Bach at the harpsichord.

Last night Jamason’s harpsichord work was coupled with baritone William Sharp. Neither of them seem to have felt that the breast-beating text (author unknown) needed to be given just as much grieving from the music; so they took a more ironic stance. Ultimately, Sharp seemed to turn to commedia dell’arte to mock the moaning and groaning of the text, blending in a bit of impatience with all the attention being given to the harpsichord. All was forgiven at the end with an acknowledging bow to Jamason inspired by Wayne’s World. Every now and then, audiences need to be reminded that musicians have every right to have a bit of fun with some of their repertoire selections.

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