The Australian Chamber Orchestra is currently touring a Bach concert, at the centrepiece of which is Johann Sebastian Bach’s much-loved Double Violin Concerto, played by Richard Tognetti and Helena Rathbone (on the newly loaned ‘ex-Dollfus’ Stradivarius). The concert, which received a four-star review from Limelight, also features repertoire by Johann Christoph Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Heinrich Bach and Johann Ludwig Bach, as well as Mozart, Schumann and Sofia Gubaidulina. Limelight spoke to Helena Rathbone about the program.

Helena Rathbone performing in the Australian Chamber Orchestra's Bach program, June 2022. Photo © Julian Kingma.

Helena Rathbone performing in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Bach program, June 2022. Photo © Julian Kingma

The extensive Bach family are renowned as the greatest of all musical dynasties. How much does this program capture the family genius?

In addition to music by the most well-known Bach, Johann Sebastian, including the Double Violin Concerto, this program includes some pieces by lesser-known members of the Bach family, such as JS’s third cousin, Johann Ludwig and great uncle, Heinrich.

There are very few surviving manuscripts from most of these composers, so we’re really only able to scratch the surface. Luckily, we have some gems (apart from the obviously glorious music of JS Bach) such as Johann Christoph Bach’s Chaconne from Meine Freudin, du bist schön. The piece was a family favourite, and JS Bach certainly knew it through a copy made by his father, Ambrosius.

What can audiences expect from the program? There is certainly a lot on offer, from arias to the CPE Cello Concerto to JS’s Bach Double Violin Concerto, with Erin Helyard also performing….

It’s always a joy to play with Erin. He is playing the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 in A Major on a fortepiano which is a reproduction of a Stein piano from the 1780s, that Mozart would have played this concerto on. The opening of this movement is a direct quote from an opera by Johann Christian Bach, whom Mozart knew and admired greatly. When JC died in 1782, Mozart was quick to pay tribute in his latest piano concerto.

Other composers such as Robert Schumann and Sofia Gubaidulina nodded their head in appreciation and deep gratitude of JS Bach. We are playing an excerpt from Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H and Gubaiduliana’s Reflections on the Theme BACH. Both these pieces use the notes B-flat – A – C – B-natural (derived from the German notation of Bach’s surname) as a theme, which JS Bach himself used in his final (incomplete) work, the incredible The Art of Fugue.

Richard Tognetti has desired JS Bach as “God to musicians”. How do you feel about JS Bach?

Bach’s music is always my go-to if I need to feel grounded. It has the ability to bring out raw emotion, from desperation to utter joy, with real profundity

Do you have another favourite Bach among his forebears and children?

Yes, that would have to be CPE Bach. Tipi [ACO Principal Cello Timo-Veikko Valve] is playing a cello concerto by Carl Phillip Emmanuel. It is searingly beautiful but much more rambunctious and heart-on-sleeve than his father’s music.

How would you describe the experience of playing the Double Violin Concerto with Richard?

Always a different journey, always searching for something new, and always wonderful.

The concert will introduce the ‘ex-Dollfus’ Stradivarius that the ACO has been loaned, which you will now play. Are you still getting used to playing it? And what qualities would you describe it as having?

It is an unbelievably wonderful privilege to be the custodian of such a fine instrument. I am so looking forward to getting to know the ‘ex-Dollfus’ more intimately as we play many concerts and tell many stories together through music.

This violin stands out as having an incredibly even tone across all its registers as if there is no weak spot. Its tone is remarkably strong, yet beautifully sweet and richly warm. As a player, the ex-Dollfus feels utterly reliable as if it is there to help you bring out exactly whichever shade of tone colour you want. It is a dream come true and a journey that I hugely appreciate being given the opportunity to explore and experience.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Bach concert tours nationally until 29 June.

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