London Bach Society 70th anniversary
St John’s, Smith Square & St George, Hanover Square. 4-8 November 2016
The London Bach Society was founded 70 years ago by Dr Paul Steinitz under the rather unambitious title of the ‘South London Bach Society’, but soon lost the ‘South’ part of the name. 1946 might not seem to be the ideal time to concentrate on things musical (and, indeed, devoted to a German composer), but they were not alone: The Arts Council and BBC Third Programme were launched around then, as were a number of orchestras. From the start, the focus of the LBS was to ‘get back to Bach in its original form’ at a time when Bach performance was very far from what we could no consider as being in any way ‘authentic’ with enormous choirs and orchestras, and a funereal approach to tempo and romantic notions of instrumentation, phrasing and articulation. To this end, the Steinitz Bach Players was founded, in 1968, bringing together a small group of professional musicians interested in period performance techniques on period instruments.
Two years after Paul Steinitz’s death in 1988, his widow founded an annual Bach festival, initially known as the London Bach Festival, but now rebadged as the London Bach Society’s Bachfest. It celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. This year’s 70th anniversary Bachfest featured three concerts and an event for the Society’s 18-30 Bach Club.‘Introducing Mr Bach’
Steinitz Bach Players, Rudolf Richter, Jane Gordon
St John’s, Smith Square, 4 November 2016
Konzertsatz BWV 1045; Brandenburg Concerto No 3 BWV 1048; Concerto for three violins BWV 1064r; Cantata “Schleicht, spielende Wellen und murmelt gelinde” BWV 206.
‘Introducing Mr Bach’ seems rather a strange title for a concert (or indeed, a festival) celebrating 70 years of the London Bach Society. But in the case of the opening concert, a couple of the pieces might have counted as ‘introducing’ Bach’s music to many in the audience; the rarely performed, and rather odd Konzertsatz in D (BWV 1045), and the cantata Schleicht, spielende Wellen und murmelt gelinde (BWV 206), a Dramma per musica composed in Leipzig in 1734 for the birthday of the Saxon Elector Augustus III, aka King of Poland. The opening Konzertsatz must count as one of Bach’s most curious pieces. Sometimes referred to as a extract from a lost violin concerto, or a sinfonia to a lost cantata, it seems to splatters note around willy-nilly until it just stops. Perhaps Bach had had enough. The violin solo part has been described as ‘unmanageable’, although on this occasion Jane Gordon (pictured) made an impressive effort at trying to bring some sense of musically to the endless twiddles.7
It was followed by something far more familiar, the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto with its three groups of three violins, violas, and cellos, with continuo, followed by the Concerto for three violins, with Rodolfo Richter, Jane Gordon and Elicia Silverstein as soloists and with. Pairs of oboes and flutes were added to the string texture by director Rodolfo Richter on the grounds that the players would not otherwise have enough work during the evening to warrant their fee. It made for a rather curious sound world, and, I would have thought, was some way from the authentic sound world that lay behind the London Bach Society ethos.
After the interval, we heard the secular cantata Schleicht, spielende Wellen und murmelt gelinde (‘Glide O sparkling waves and murmur gently’), where the four vocal soloists each represent one of the rivers that flow through Saxony, each presented their case to be the best river in the realm, until Pleisse suggests that they all work in harmony. It is a clever bit of sycophantic and geographic nonsense, and shows that Bach’s music was not just devoted to the glory of God. The opening murmurs are quickly interrupted by a trio of trumpets, leading to a variety of moods as the soloists Rowan Pierce, Mireille Lebel, Nicholas Mulroy and Benjamin Bevan represented their rivers to the accompaniment of some inventive instrumental colours including, on one occasion, three flutes.
Unfortunately there were continuing issues of intonation from the orchestra and a degree of hesitancy that suggested a lack of rehearsal time, but I guess this is an inevitable problem for an orchestra formed annually for a short festival.
‘In the footsteps of Bach’
Steinitz Bach Players, Amici Voices, Anna Harvey, William Whitehead, Jane Gordon
St George, Hanover Square, 7 November 2016
Bach: Cantata Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust BWV 170; Chaconne from Partita 2 BWV 1004; Chorale Preludes from Orgelbüchlein; Motet “Jesu, meine Freude” BWV 227
From The Orgelbüchlein Project – Anthony Powers: O Gott, du frommer Gott; Diana Burrell: Wo soll ich fliehen hin (premiere of LBS commission)
Seventy years to the day from the meeting that founded the London Bach Society, supporters and friends gathered in Handel’s church of St George, Hanover Square to celebrate with a eclectic programme of music interspersed with almost inaudible speeches. It opened with Bach’s gorgeous cantata for solo alto, Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, with it’s earworm opening aria and prominent organ solos. The soloist was mezzo Anna Harvey (pictured), winner of the 2015 LBS Bach Singers Prize. I was very impressed with her singing: she has a solid and consistent mezzo tone and timbre (rather than that of a soprano who can sing low) which she combines with excellent enunciation and an impressive sense of the musicality of a melodic line. The Steinitz Bach Players, with a different line up to Friday’s concert and led by Jane Gordon, were on much better form, playing with a welcome degree of cohesion. Anthony Robson was the oboe d’amore soloist.
Having provided some deft organ solos on a small chamber organ, William Whitehead then moved to the main church organ to play three pieces from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, using some well-thought out registrations. He later played two new compositions from his Orgelbüchlein Project, a scheme to invite composers to complete the 118 chorale preludes that Bach didn’t manage to finish. On this occasion we heard Anthony Powers’ prelude on O Gott, du frommer Gott and Diana Burrell’s Wo soll ich fliehen hin, a piece commissioned by LBS for this anniversary concert. Both pieces acknowledged Bach’s own style, but were firmly in contrasting contemporary idioms, the former with a canon decorated with treble flourishes and Diana Burrell’s complex piece contrasting a regular pulse with seemingly random interjections above the stately progression of the chorale theme. Both fascinating works.
Jane Gordon then gave an excellent performance of the Chaccone from Bach Violin Partita in D minor, achieving a fine balance between the overall architectural structure and tiny details of articulation and demonstrating an excellent control of violin tone, most impressively in the quieter moments.
The evening finished with one of Bach’s finest motets, Jesu, meine Freude, sung by the very impressive group of eight young singers, the Amici Voices (pictured), with well-judged chamber organ accompaniment by Terence Charlston. Arranged symmetrically with the two sopranos in the centre, helped them to explore Bach’s varying vocal textures, ranging from trios, through four or five part consorts to double choir. It is perhaps invidious to pick out individuals from a vocal consort, but I was particularly impressed with the trio Denn das Gesetz sung by Rachel Ambrose Evans, Bethany Partridge and Helen Charlston, the first and last of them also providing clear and focussed singing of the choral theme in two other verses. The central fugal Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlick, always a test of consort singers, was also particularly well sung.
The celebration evening finished with all the performers joining with the audience to sing Jesu, bleibet meine Freude.
Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments
St John’s, Smith Square, 4 November 2016
Music by Bach, Rameau, Vivaldi, Ariosti, Chédeville, Bach, Dandrieu, van Waafelghem, Couperin.
The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments is so named to reflect the rather curious concerts given in Paris by La Société des Instruments Anciens (pictured). Founded in 1901, they played what were then considered ‘strange’ instruments like the hurdy gurdy, viola d’amore, viola da gamba and harpsichord. Although the link with the formation of the LBS in 1946 was not mentioned in the programme, there seems to have been a similar exploratory approach to both ventures. La Société programmes combined arrangements of well known pieces with music by lesser known composers, often in the form of extracts. Nowadays not so many of their instruments are considered ‘strange’, but it was interesting to imagine how the Parisian might have responded to hearing these instruments as the SSAI recreated one of their Salon Playel concerts 110 years ago, using the same types of instruments.
In a well balanced programme that demonstrated all the instruments in various combinations and moods, the four players (Clare Salaman hurdy gurdy, Bojan Cicic viola d’amore, Alison McGillivray viola da gamba, Terence Charlston harpsichord) took us from Bach to Louis van Waefelghem, one of the original La Société members. His Soir d’Automme was, structurally, an elaborate and lengthy cadenza attached to an attractive song without words for viola d’amore and harpsichord, the former using some ethereal distant bell-like harmonics in the cadenza. It had been preceded by a particularly strange and ancient instrument, not part of the collection of La Société, with an arrangement of Bach’s Sonata for viola da gamba (BWV 1027) for nyckelharpa, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The nyckelharpa was probably ‘strange’ to most of the present day audience, although its roots go back to medieval days. It is an odd looking keyed fiddle with the appearance of being the love child of a viola da gamba and a hurdy gurdy, with the body of the former and the key-box of the latter. It is played by being strapped diagonally across the body and, for some reason, is now seen as the national instrument of Sweden. It played the upper voice of the harpsichord part, leaving the latter to fill in continuo chords to the remaining bass line.
One piece that was firmly in the hurdy gurdy tradition was the Suite by Esprit Philippe Chédeville, which might have been the sort of thing that Marie-Antoinette played in her sojourns in her pastoral retreat in the grounds of Versailles, the Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s hamlet). Nowadays, we tend to only hear the viola d’amore when used in the Bach Passions, but it was interesting to hear it in a more prominent role, playing an extract from Bach’s Violin 1st Partita.
More information about the London Bach Society can be found at here.