The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s superb concert of Couperin, Haydn and Schubert in the Stoughton Opera House will air in late July on Wisconsin Public Television.

July 2, 2012
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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

For one of the two programs played by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Madison in their final weekend this summer season, a splendid menu of music for a rather special occasion was served up.

The performance, given at the charmingly restored and intimate Stoughton Opera House last Friday evening (June 29), was videotaped for Wisconsin Public Television, to be aired statewide as the last in the “Jewel Box Concerts” series of Monday evening showings in July. It will be well worth waiting for, and watching. This one is tentatively slated to air 9-10 p.m. on the fourth Monday, July 23.

This has been the second year, I believe, that the BDDS has introduced a harpsichordist into their ranks, and with him a strong and authentic taste of the Baroque.

Layton James (below), who was the principal harpsichordist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for 41 years, brought a particularly stylish elegance to a performance of the Fourth of François Couperin’s “Concerts Royaux,” a seven-movement dance suite in E minor, with flute, violin, and cello filling out the scoring.

James was also available for the keyboard part in one of the reductions of Haydn symphonies — in this case, of the Symphony No. 85 from the “Paris” series, nicknamed “La Reine” (“The Queen”) because of the French queen Marie Antoinette‘s particular delight in it.

These arrangements were made by Haydn’s sponsor during his London visits, the violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon, and were designed for an intimate chamber group who might thus enjoy this orchestral music as playable by a group of parlor friends. These reductions work very well, without serious sacrifice of the original larger texture. The six players this time (on flute, two violins, viola, cello, and keyboard) genially shared this engaging fun with the audience.

In between those two works, an addition was made to the program. The group’s pianist, as well as co-founder and co-director, Jeffrey Sykes, had not been scheduled to play; but the TV documentation prompted his first time as a soloist rather than a chamber player after all. And so he gave a vigorous performance of one of Haydn’s many piano sonatas (No. 49 in E-flat major).

The post-intermission door prize drawings were prefaced by a guest, the singer Henry Saposnik, who regaled the house with an amusing song in Yiddish and English.

The red meat of the program, constituting the entire second half, was one of the greatest chamber-music treats possible: Schubert‘s String Quintet in C, the one with added cello (at bottom).

It was composed just weeks before the syphilitic Schubert died. It is easy to think of it as his musical last will and testament, and impossible not to feel his mix of characteristically creative optimism with terror in the face of oncoming death. There is simply nothing like it in the musical literature for almost unbearable beauty and pathos, joining gorgeous lyricism with anguished restlessness.

The five string players marshalled for this were obviously quite caught up in this astounding music, and delivered a compelling rendition of it.

Particularly notable was first violinist Carmit Zori (below, second from left), who brought energetic virtuosity, song-like outpouring, deft lilt and bouncy body language to her playing, which gave tangible inspiration and leadership to the rest of the group.

You simply can’t get better chamber music than this!

Here is a link to another review by Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

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