Bach cut with Mendelssohn: a bit like painting over early artworks
Adulterating Bach with Mendelssohn at a concert at the NCH was dreadfully misguided
It looked like an interesting swap. Joshua Bell had been billed to open his NCH concert with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, with an unidentified partner. At the beginning of the month, this was changed to the same composer’s great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin.
What was actually played, however, was entirely different. Well, not entirely. The Chaconne was given in a version I had never heard of before, with an orchestral accompaniment contrived by Julian Milone.
Bach’s works for solo violin fell prey to the 19th-century habit of bringing old things up to date in ways that conformed to contemporary taste. For the last half century or more, the modern approach to the same inclination has been to explore the performing styles of previous eras and to use period instruments in an attempt to recreate a manner of performance that the composer might have recognised.
In the middle of the 19th century, the approach was rather different. Mendelssohn and Schumann were among the composers who provided piano accompaniments for Bach’s solo violin works. Grieg even went as far as adding a second piano part to a number of Mozart piano sonatas. In 1892, Busoni made his piano transcription of the Bach Chaconne, filling in gaps and elaborating harmonies in ways that still upset some listeners as much as they thrill others. Brahms earlier tackled the problem in a more creative way, transcribing the Chaconne for piano, but for the left hand alone, and managing to retain the technical challenge, which is an essential part of the music without having to resort to un-Bach-like additions.
Milone’s elaboration is an orchestration of Mendelssohn’s piano part, and it made about as much sense to me as, say, painting over early artworks to give them the benefit of later techniques and perspective. One of the facets of Bach’s solo violin and cello works is the amazing suggestiveness through which, within the limitations of those instruments, they manage to be self-contained. In musical terms, in the feeling of the completeness of the harmony and counterpoint, Bach juggles more balls than it should be humanly possible to keep in the air.
Providing extra hands, as it were, to help him along, and doing so in a way that changes the pattern and flavour of the work, seems dreadfully misguided. I wouldn’t imagine I was the only person at the National Concert Hall who would have preferred to hear both Bach and Bell without adulteration. And if I wanted to sample Mendelssohn’s additions, I think I would have preferred to hear them as the composer imagined them, on the piano.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the rest of the concert, either. I missed the presence of a conductor. Bell directed the Beethoven from the first desk of the orchestra, and there was a lot of intervention from that desk when he stood in front of the orchestra in the second half for a performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The Beethoven included some effects of highlighting that seemed to be there simply for their own sake. And the Brahms, in spite of the expertise of the delivery, lacked an essential warmth.
If Bell and his London orchestra were on the cool side, the opposite was the case when Andrew Gourlay conducted the RTÉ NSO on Friday. This was an evening of mostly high-impact music-making. Gourlay gloried in the colour and springing rhythms of Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite. Pianist Joanna MacGregor took a tigerish delight in the challenges of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and even delivered some of the syncopations from the perspective of popular rather than classical music. It’s a matter of which way you bend. The popular world likes to anticipate the beat
; the classical world likes to delay it.
It may have been a matter of too much of a good thing, but the in-your-face treatment of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite seemed tastelessly over the top, making the composer seem like someone going on and on long after he has made his point.
The blare of the Tchaikovsky did, however, serve to highlight Gourlay’s sensual sensitivity in Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. He’s a conductor who can bring a special aura to a hush as well as an edge of ferocity to a climax. The evening looked and sounded like a real workout for the orchestra from a conductor I am sure we will be hearing a lot more of.
Aptly named Masterworks
Monica Huggett’s annual Masterworks series with the Irish Baroque Orchestra moved for the first time to Newman University Church on St Stephen’s Green on Monday. The church, once notoriously chilly, is now, courtesy of a new heating system, agreeably warm. And the sound, which can be a little muddy, and was rarely entirely satisfactory in the Orchestra of St Cecilia’s now sadly discontinued Haydn series, was as clear as I ha
ve ever heard it. The IBO positioned themselves as close as possible to the listeners in the pews, and the lighter sounds of the early instruments didn’t stir up too much unwanted swimminess.
This year’s series is called Concerti Bizzarri, and it offers works featuring unusual instruments and instrumental combinations: a concerto for oboe d’amore by Dittersdorf (written at a time when the instrument was already almost obsolete); a concerto by Telemann for flute, viola d’amore and oboe d’amore; and an overture by Telemann that calls for two oboes d’amore.
The evening’s music appeared to be governed by the pleasure principle. The combination of the three solo instruments in the Telemann, played by Julia Corry, Andreas Helm and Huw Daniel, was distinctive and utterly gorgeous, an effect once heard, never forgotten.
There are two more concerts in the series, featuring works by Vivaldi, JC Bach, Telemann and Christoph Graupner this evening, and Vivaldi, Telemann and Johann Ludwig Bach on Friday. The starting time is 7.30pm each night.