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Melbourne Chamber Orchestra: The Brothers Bach

by Julie McErlain

Welcoming the return of near capacity audiences for live classical music, a highly enthusiastic audience provided a vibrant atmosphere and a warm welcome to Melbourne Chamber Orchestra director and violinist William Hennessy AM as he led his ensemble to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage. The view was enhancing, the tones of the timber walls and music stands in colourful sympathy, the hues of the cello rises also blending into the timber floor, and with just two gentlemen in tailcoats and ten women dressed in formal and elegant black standing in a well designed portrait, this presentation was absolutely in vogue. Very pleasing to the eye. Dimmed back stage lights between items while piano and music stands were re-set was smoothly non-distracting. Well done artistic designers and stage management teams.

Featuring acclaimed and popular pianist Aura Go was a further attraction to this splendid choice of program, with Hennessy’s welcoming words adding to the allure: “The conspicuous elephant in the room is … (pause) … Dad.” Having a dad who was THE master of perhaps all time, Hennessy mused that the challenge within the consciousness of these boys was surely, never to be boring.

Johann Christian Bach certainly designed his music to appeal to the audience, perhaps not imitating his father’s intellectual disciplines and contrapuntal architecture. The opening Allegro movement from Sinfonia No 6 in G minor brought us a highly polished, rich and warm sound from these well-blended, highly spirited and demonstrative MCO musicians. A full-bodied sound always comes from the ideal acoustic of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, and the inimitable robust leadership from Hennessy’s bow exacted lucid detail in dynamics and expression from this first class team. The longest movement, Andante piu tosto adagio, shows JC Bach at his greatest, where operatic influences prompted strong and passionate writing with no restraint in emotions, and an exquisite diminuendo in a final unexpected closing sigh left us hungry for more. The Allegro molto was also performed with much passion and colourful detail as tremolo strings expressed an almost overly assertive and unsettling emotion as further tensions were left unresolved. How contemporary and adventurous must this work have been viewed in its day. This vivacious selection with its many explosive bursts of colour was highly applauded by an engaged and enthusiastic audience.

Aura Go’s entrance to the stage for Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Piano Concerto in C minor connected warmly with the audience, who appreciated the range of personality and expression in an authoritative performance. Her cadenzas in particular showed much nuance and tonal variation, complementing her precise and technical brilliance. It is a joy to hear such a colourful range of expression from a team of musicians who display a connection from being really “into” and inside their music.

Nicknamed “The Dissonant”, Sinfonia in F major by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was certainly full of radical statements, some surprising and daring chords, and much challenging and unpredictable shapes. Agitated repeated notes, exploratory colours and chromaticism from novel and creative bowing techniques were admirably effective. The MCO held us spellbound with their expertise and captivating effects. Unusually, the fourth movement consisted of two Menuets, where there were fewer melodic surprises, as smoothness in repeated patterns of a classical, more formal elegancewas restored. The second Menuet felt to me more like an operatic or Parisienne waltz, where rich lyrical melodies and long sweeping ensemble phrases looked to the future. We wonder if Dad approved of such designs.

Returning to the stage, Aura Go spoke of the great respect Mozart felt for JC Bach and his influence on him. To pay tribute to that historical connection she partnered with Hennessy to perform Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in C. This graceful and sensitive performance highlighted the operatic influences and delightful lyricism of two friends, as we shared this extra program item as a touching historical and musical connection for both the referenced composers and the performers.

Having opened the concert, and being an important bridge between Baroque and Classical development, Bach Brother Johann Christian showed his importance as one of the first to write keyboard concertos, winning public favour in his day by using the new forte piano. We were graced with highly tuneful melodic themes, recurring elegant patterns, and special clarity and expressive piano work in the cadenzas and highly melodic central Andante movement. It was the third movement Allegro that featured the soloist in a light, almost capricious but energetic gallopede, showing Aura Go’s fine technique, exuberance and tonal vitality.

How often do we hear music by the Bach Brothers? Here was a concert that, hopefully, was recorded for re-playing and enjoying again and again.

Photo supplied.

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Julie McErlain reviewed The Brothers Bach, performed with pianist Aura Go as part of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s Concert Season 2021, streamed via Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 29, 2021.

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