The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Despite some flawed comparisons, the Madison Bach Musicians turn in brilliant performances in a concept program of “imitations” by Bach and Vivaldi | September 26, 2017

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 once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

By John W. Barker

An unusual program opened the 14th season of Trevor Stephenson’s Madison Bach Musicians (below) at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night, and was repeated on Sunday afternoon at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton.

Instead of a string of compositions with few or no connections, there was a cumulative assemblage illustrating an overriding theme, as summed up in the title of “Imitation.”

To be sure, only two composers were involved: Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. The focus was on their uses of imitative textures, including canon and fugue. There were 11 pieces in all, mostly — although not entirely — grouped in pairs, Vivaldi leading each.

The organization was fugue-like, too, beginning with two-part textures and culminating in nine parts. Thus, the nine players (four violins, two violas, two cellos and a harpsichord) were gradually built into the full company by the end.

The pairings did not evoke any direct parallelisms between Vivaldi (below top) and Bach (below bottom), though the former’s experimental and extroverted Italian style stood in regular contrast with Bach’s Germanic seriousness, even as each explored similar contrapuntal possibilities.

The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.

A more serious instance was the tantalizing idea of hearing Bach’s own transcription of a work by Vivaldi. The original was the Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, a true concerto grosso, matching a concertino of two violins and cello against a full four-part string ensemble.

Now, Bach made transcriptions of a number of Vivaldi concertos, but presenting any of them in this context posed practical concerns for these players. In this case, Bach’s adaptation was for solo organ. Instead, we heard it with Bach’s organ transcription transcribed, in turn, into a concerto for nine players by one of the group’s violists, Micah Behr.

(You can compare Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins to Bach’s reworking of the same concerto for four harpsichords in the YouTube video at bottom.)

Again, this third-hand edition allowed for contrapuntal clarity, but it totally distorted Bach’s intentions as a transcriber himself.

That said, the performances were all brilliant. Visiting Baroque cellist Steuart Pincombe (below) was something of a star, but all musicians played wonderfully, sitting in a circle for closest interaction and without an intermission.

Still, reservations about this program aside, this concept or idea concert is worth trying again.

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7 Comments »

  1. The practice of transcription can allow composers to be in artistic dialogue with their colleagues or predecessors; it is among the healthiest forms of appropriation because it is done through appreciation and reverence, in a way. Yes, we can judge a transcription’s effectiveness, but not by using the elusive “composer’s intentions” as a measure of success.

    Comment by Kyle D. Johnson — September 26, 2017 @ 8:57 am

    • Correct.

      And the Dodo reviewer believes that only he can discern the real composer’s intent; something just about all musicians (and composers) would laugh at.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 27, 2017 @ 12:09 am

  2. There is indeed a deep connection between Vivaldi’s constructive techniques and Bach after Bach’s encounter with Vivaldi’s music via sheet music at the Weimar court brought back by Prince Johann Ernst at the Weimar court after his Grand Tour. It permeates Bach’s technique deeply after that in the way that he uses ritornello constructions in a complex way that takes its clue from Vivaldi but isn’t at all the same. This is true of his vocal works as well as his instrumental works, and is hardly confined to concertos. Just showing that he knew some specific pieces from Op. 3 and arranged them isn’t the same thing at all. There might be an expert here somewhere. Let me think….

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — September 26, 2017 @ 7:43 am

    • You cannot see the forest through the trees, Madame.
      Bach, like most composers and musicians, took freely from others and from his own works, sometimes reworking and reshaping for other instrumental voices: 1) because he was under tremendous pressure to produce music; 2) he needed the money; 3) he “cut and pasted” and transcribed to fit the musicians (and instruments they had) at hand. 4) he was pressed for time. I suspect those are the main reasons but #3 is probably the one most important to this performing group: they transcribed to fit the performers (and instruments) in their group. And Bach would have given his blessings to them!

      Comment by fflambeau — September 27, 2017 @ 3:10 am

      • Flambeau, I am a musicologist with a Ph.D. from Yale who works on German Baroque music including Bach. You did not understand my point at all. It had nothing at all to do with transcription, but rather what Bach learned about ritornello structure from Vivaldi and then applied to music in virtually all genres, by constructing works with deep ritornello structures. This is actually the more crucial connection—the other was a first step in a long journey.

        Comment by Jeanne Swack — September 27, 2017 @ 10:17 am

  3. “The entire concept of the program was intriguing. I did, however, find that two specific selections, both by Bach, did not fit well. They were given in transcriptions rather than as the composer intended. Thus, a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier was delivered not on the keyboard, but by five string players.

    To be sure, that transformation allowed the three-voice counterpoint to be heard more distinctly, but the fact remains that it was written for keyboard and Bach’s part writing deserved to be heard as he intended.”

    This critic, to whom no one will even consider building a statue, made much the same objection to Stokowski’s Transcription of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, recently played by the MSO. It is one of the most beloved pieces ever written/transcribed.

    Nor does he seem to understand Bach or “his intent”. Bach can be enjoyed even to the point of “switched on Bach” and beyond. Bach realized that but not Mr. Dodo.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 26, 2017 @ 12:20 am

    • Anyone knowledgeble about music knows that all composers and many performers (including Bach) freely took their own music and adapted it for other purposes, and other instruments. From an article exploring this: “Bach transcribed some of his cantata movements as the ‘Schübler’ choral preludes for organ, while as director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, he rearranged his earlier violin concertos as keyboard concertos for the amateur musicians to play and rehearse at their weekly practices in Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus.”

      https://blog.oup.com/2015/02/art-of-musical-arrangements/

      Shouldn’t someone calling himself a music “critic” know this?

      Comment by fflambeau — September 26, 2017 @ 12:28 am


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