The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Bach Musicians shine in mixed violin and harpsichord concertos by Bach and Tartini

April 11, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting that reviews concerts given this past Saturday night and Sunday afternoon by the Madison Bach Musicians. It was written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. (The photos are mine.)

Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians delivered one of their most stunning chamber concerts with a program containing no more than four concertos.

Ah, but what concertos!

In the first half came the Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in F minor (below and bottom), and the Two Violin Concerto in D minor, both by Bach. The second half ended with Bach’s familiar Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G.

But the item preceding that was not by Bach. It was one of the some 135 violin concertos composed by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770, below), this one in E minor. Tartini was one of the greatest violin virtuosos of his time, and he composed showpieces for himself. So the writing is fiendishly difficult and frankly showy.

Inclusion of this in an otherwise all-Bach program was illuminating, pointing up the considerable differences in stylistic character and goals between the great German master and an idiosyncratic Italian superstar.

As soloist in that work was a guest player, the distinguished violinist Marilyn McDonald (below left), one of the pioneers of early music performance and the period-instrument style. Her fine technique faltered in scattered moments of intonation problems, but her stylistic sense and artistic confidence never flagged. She is a powerhouse of a musician, and she somewhat overshadowed MBM regular Kangwon Kim (below right), slightly too deferential as solo partner in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.

But McDonald clearly galvanized our local players for the three works in which she participated.

Throughout the program, the ensemble consistently was limited to one string player per part. This practice guaranteed transparency of texture, and was surely in accord with the intimate music-making, in such works that the composer enjoyed when giving musicales in his favorite Leipzig coffee house.

These concertos are chamber music, not “orchestral” in any way. That point was made even more clear in the concert’s climax, with the Brandenburg No. 3. This absolutely unique piece of chamber music experimentation has by now been thoroughly rescued from past “orchestral” misunderstandings. It is, in fact, a string nonet, for the mathematically (and coloristically) fascinating combination of three violins, three violas and three cellos plus a double bass and keyboard for the continuo.

Bach’s kaleidoscopic exploration of contrasts both between and within these three differentiated blocs is always fascinating to the ear, but it becomes the more gripping when one can observe the performance in person, following visually the interactions flashing all around.

Stephenson elegantly coped with the famous enigma of the Adagio “second movement”, which consists simply of two chords, and leaves players wondering if and how they should “fill them in.” Stephenson simply played a harpsichord flourish between them, a sensible course among many (and often extreme) alternatives.

The bracing rendition of this amazing score brought Saturday night’s large and grateful audience at Trinity Lutheran Church to its feet (below) in delighted thanks. (The concert was also repeated to the same reception Sunday afternoon.)

Once again, how fortunate Madison is to have such music-making as a part of its cultural life!

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Posted in Classical music

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