The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Ensemble SDG explores and excites with unusual Baroque music in Madison. Now it’s on to the Boston Early Music Festival. | June 6, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. 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, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. 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

Yet another bubble of vitality on the musical scene in Madison came on Friday evening June 3 at the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (below), with a performance by the early music and period instrument Ensemble SDG, in a program entitled “Play It Again, Johann: Variations and Revisions in Music of Germany, 1660-1730.”

SDG, the name chosen by this ensemble, contains the initials of the Latin motto “Soli Deo gloria” (To the Glory of God Alone), which Bach often wrote at the end of the manuscript of a new composition.

Though SDG occasionally works with a few other performers, and may expand more in that direction, it is essentially a duo (below), consisting of Edith Hines (below right), playing the Baroque violin, and John Chappell (“Chappy”) Stowe of the UW Music School faculty, on harpsichord or organ. They have worked together as this duo for two years now.

Exercising sound scholarly reasoning, Stowe played his keyboard parts on the very fine St. Andrew’s organ, which he helped design.

The program was intended to show the backgrounds out of which Bach (below) emerged and in which he functioned. The first half represented, in effect, the background, one of virtuosic violin playing, and of accomplished exploitation of variations techniques.

Indeed, the first two pieces particularly showed off the characteristic imagination that was poured into the form of the “passacaglia” or “ciacona,” with its violin elaborations evolved over a recurrent bass figure in the keyboard part.

An Adagio and Passacaglia by an anonymous composer, which is preserved in a Viennese manuscript from about 1690, was followed by a spectacular sonata from among six published in 1664 by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (below). A striking feature of both works, too, was the extensive use of chromatic lines and textures that so particularly preoccupied musicians of the 17th century.

And then Stowe alone cut the organ loose in a blazing “Passacaglia in D minor” by Dietrich Buxtehude preserved only because Bach’s brother copied it out. Its ostinato bass figure was curiously close to that used by Bach in his famous organ Passacaglia in the same key.

The second half of the program offered two rare and early works by Bach himself. An isolated Fugue in G minor for violin and keyboard, apparently dating from his 20s, demonstrated his contrapuntal command from his youth, in clear linkage with his background.

Still more fascinating was one of two versions of his Sonata No. 6 in G major for violin and harpsichord that differ from the familiar, well established and apparently “definitive” one, this so much as to be virtually a different composition. Its middle movement is known to be the composer’s adaptation of an aria from some lost cantata: the soprano line in the keyboard right hand, the violin as the obbligato, and the keyboard left hand for the bass.

In talking about this work (as was done before each one), Stowe pointed out that this movement’s texture was much in line with that of Bach’s familiar Trio Sonatas for organ. And, in this work, we had a lesson in observing Bach’s capacity to rethink his music, something he frequently did.

This was a brief but fascinating program for the lover of Baroque music and of Baroque music-making. Hines played with perhaps the most dazzling virtuosity I have heard from her. And Stowe, as always, was a paragon of artistry combined with scholarly insights.

These two work particularly well with each other. And, as they did two years ago, they will take their latest program to play at the upcoming Boston Early Music Festival.

Could any Olympic athletes blaze a Madison trail to international prominence better than these two fine musicians?

Posted in Classical music


  1. […] venues around the city.  We had two primary responsibilities: first, to perform our program “Play It Again, Johann: Variations and Revisions in Music of Germany, 1660–1730” as part of the BEMF Fringe Concert […]

    Pingback by Classical music: Take a look inside the Boston Early Music Festival from performers in the Madison Early Music Festival, which begins Saturday « The Well-Tempered Ear — July 5, 2011 @ 12:02 am

  2. This program of music from pre-Bach and J.C. himself would make a marvelous CD recording.
    I wish that some label could feature these artists and this program.

    Comment by Ron — June 6, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    • Hi Ron,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I agree with you — and bet that the artists would too.
      But music labels these days seem to be cutting — not adding — musicians.
      Still, we can hope.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 6, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

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