What a family! The Australian Chamber Orchestra gave us a taste of the musical genius that touched so many members of the extended Bach family in a program comprising a mixture of familiar mainstream repertoire and works that are rarely played. Two works from composers inspired by Johann Sebastian and another by Johann Christian completed a surprisingly diverse selection of items.
Before the concert proper was appropriately launched with an Overture from Johann Ludwig’s Suite in G major, Artistic Director and Violin maestro, Richard Tognetti, announced that the featured singer, mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley, was “on her way to being well” but not well enough to perform in this concert. Disappointment turned to relief as we learned that the renowned baritone, David Greco, would take her place. In the event, he did not sing the fourth programmed vocal work, an aria from Johann Christoph Friedrich’s Die Amerikanerin – a pity, since he and we would have enjoyed the dramatic excerpt from this brief secular cantata with its lurid plot.
Not that anybody could really complain after hearing Greco’s extraordinary interpretation of the Chaconne from Johann Christoph’s Meine Freundin, du bist schön. Based on the Song of Songs, it is from the point of view of a woman thinking about the delights of being with her lover and involves a great deal of repetition of the phrase “Mein Freund ist mein und ich bin sein”. Greco embraced the sentiment with gusto, operatic in his approach and lavish in his ornamentation. He found a willing virtuosic partner in Satu Vänskä, whose brilliant violin obbligato added to the electrifying energy of this performance.
Following hard on its heels came the aria “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (Stand firm against sin) from Johann Sebastian’s Cantata of the same name – apparently his earliest surviving cantata for solo voice. Beginning with a dissonant chord and continuing with an insistent bass pulse with vigorous string attack, Greco almost spoke some of the exhortation, humorously challenging the audience with a knowing smile.
In the second work after interval, Greco’s singing of “Schlummert ein, Ihr matten Augen” (Sleep, my weary eyes) from JS Bach’s Cantata Ich habe genug, BWV82 was much more serious in character. Soothing strings formed a gentle cushion for Greco’s warm, rich tone – resonant and well projected even in long, very quiet phrases. His range – even with ease on the top notes and strength on the low notes – coupled with a most appealing timbre allowed his expressiveness and musicality to shine.
A special atmosphere had been created earlier as he stood in darkness while behind him, illuminated by cold, stark shafts of light, the orchestra played Sofia Gubaidulina’s Reflections on the theme BACH in an arrangement for strings. Her homage to JS Bach reflects on the BACH note motif and then adds material from The Art of Fugue. It is totally different in character from the excerpt from No. 6 of Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, which was played in the first half of the program. Whereas the Schumann draws on Bach’s musical style for the double fugue of this number, Gubaidulina’s language is abstract. Fragments of sound gradually emerged from the shadows. Snatches of more tuneful cello passages, repeated series of upward slides, sparse whispers of violin and violas, a shimmering solo violin fragment and plucked strings cohered into a slowly evolving meditation – mysterious and mystical. The lights faded to black, then, after a short pause, the stage was bathed in warm light for the Cantata.
Perhaps the major attraction of the program was JS Bach’s much-loved Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043, with Tognetti and Helena Rathbone playing two outstanding examples of the luthier’s craft – a Guarneri and a Stradivarius, respectively; different makers, but in the hands of these two violinists exceptionally complementary. As is customary nowadays the first movement began at a spanking pace and even the second movement Largo ma non tanto seemed to be over all too soon even though the instruction of “non tanto” (not too much) suggests Romantic wallowing should be avoided. But the gloriously entwining lines, with full lower notes and sweet upper notes from the two violins were such a joy that it was hard not to wish for a little more lingering.
To conclude the abbreviated second half of the program, the Andante movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major was followed by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major – both splendid opportunities to showcase the talents of the ACO musicians. Mozart was a fervent admirer of Johann Christian Bach and paid special tribute to him when he learnt of his death in 1782. Long unaccompanied passages and the fine acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall meant that Erin Helyard’s fortepiano was clearly audible. Having performed on harpsichord for many earlier pieces, it was a welcome opportunity to hear his skill and artistry brought to prominence in this piece.
Timo-Veikko Valve was impressively virtuosic in the cello concerto. After a rousing introduction and florid passages at lightning speed as orchestra and soloist interacted in a lively conversation in the first movement, the second movement not only brought about a change of pace but a strange acoustic phenomenon as muted strings assumed a haunting horn-like timbre. The jollity of the final movement seemed almost rude in contrast. But it was an appropriately light-hearted way to end the concert and was in keeping with the wonderful foot-stamping fencing of the Sonata à 5 by Heinrich Bach near the beginning of the program. It reflected two of the ACO’s dominant features: virtuosity and enthusiasm.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Bach”, performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 17, 2022.