Townsville Civic Theatre
July 5, 2015

Few composers command the same universal adoration as J.S. Bach, but such a ubiquitous figure, regardless of the brilliance of his music, risks becoming hackneyed if the same trite favourites are trotted out again and again. This issue was skilfully navigated by AFCM Artistic Director Piers Lane during the festival’s marathon evening of music dedicated to the baroque master, which instead aimed to shine a light on those works from the composer’s vast output that languish in the shadows. Across two programmes, both to full houses at the Townsville Civic Theatre, we were treated to some of Bach’s (and in one instance his descendent’s) less well-travelled works, with a mixture of contemporary delivery, period authenticity, and experimental reimaginings on offer. Crowning each concert Festival headliner Piotr Anderszewski, a pianist celebrated for his meticulous and astonishingly polished realisations of Bach, brought us back to more familiar territory with performances of two of J.S’s most accomplished and demanding keyboard works.

Opening the first Bach by Candlelight programme, one of the handful of secular Cantatas, from a catalogue of over 200 written by Bach, Non sa che sia dolore, (He knows not what sorrow is) BWV 209. Although we associate the composer with some of the greatest works of devotional music ever penned, works like this one remind us that Bach wrote music for every corner of life, and this cantata, with its unusual and emotionally flamboyant Italian text, would have been performed in an informal setting far less austere than Bach’s ecclesiastical cantatas. After a slightly timid start to the opening sinfonia, the ensemble led by violinist Jack Liebeck found their stride. American flautist Lorna McGhee gave the flute obligato a sparkling lightness that struck an ideal balance with the lively and expressive soprano of Valda Wilson. Finding an excellent equilibrium between meaning and melody, Wilson’s dramatic gifts allowed some compelling storytelling while maintaining laser beam precision and superb intonation in Bach’s more knotty melismas.

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The second Bach by Candlelight programme also offered a large ensemble piece featuring McGhee, this time performing a Flute arrangement in C major by Milan Muchinger of the A major harpsichord concerto. Led by SSO concert master Dene Olding, this was an extremely credible performance on all counts, with the melodic line newly fashioned for flute suited perfectly for the instrument. McGhee’s performance was delightfully well crafted, and despite the extreme stamina required for this work’s mercilessly lengthy phrases, this was fluent, nimble, effortless playing completely unburdened of any hint of difficulty.

Both programmes also offered some virtuosic double-reed playing, with a quirky and adroit Bassoon Sonata in D minor by Bach’s equally gifted son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, performed with warmth and sensitivity by Matthew Wilkie, and J.S. Bach’s Sonata for oboe and harpsichord in G minor, performed by Neal Peres da Costa, and one of the finest oboists of his generation, Nicholas Daniel. Full of personal flavour and irresistible charisma, this performance beautifully demonstrated Daniel’s artistry. Characterful, communicative and rich in its sense of dramatic urgency, Daniel’s expressive physicality was as vital to the success of this realisation as his unique and largely insightful decisions in the variety of tone, colour and articulation, although this may have been overly fussy for those who prefer their Bach with a little more period conformity.

And on that note, the first two pieces in the second of the day’s Bach programmes offered an opportunity to examine an old and perennial argument: baroque authenticity versus modern day update. Bach’s music, perhaps more than any other composers, has been rearranged, appropriated and experimented with across multiple genres and styles. From Death Metal to Bluegrass, Jazz to Motown, Bach’s been there and done that. Here we were presented with two Sonatas, side by side, both originally scored for viola da gamba and continuo, both written in close succession, but both performed with radically different results. First, in the corner of period performance, Hartmut Rohde and Neal Peres da Costa delivered what was sadly a rough and muddied ramble through the second Sonata in D Major, BWV 1028. However perhaps because of the seemingly limitless generosity of J.S’s music and its ability to flourish in almost any incarnation, the winner of this particular fight for me was accordionist James Crabb and cellist Julian Smiles’ jaunty account of the Sonata No. 3 in G minor. Once the ears have a moment to reacclimatise to this idiosyncratic combination, the reedy swell of the accordion proved uncannily sympathetic to the woody richness of the cello.

Of course the highlight of both programmes were the performances by Polish piano perfectionist Piotr Anderszewski, performing first the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 and then the English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811. Anderszewski is well known for his tireless pursuit of precision and clarity and both these performances radiated with a forensically detailed and thoroughly considered delivery. If some pianists are like watercolours, melting diaphanously from harmony to harmony, and others are oils, dealing in bold daubs of sound, Anderszewski is like a quill and ink: clear, decisive and unequivocal in his commitment to the interpretation.

This perhaps lacks the spontaneity of other great Bach exponents, but Anderszewski is such a fiercely well-equipped technician that the sheer deftness of this performance was completely enrapturing. He carefully and sensitively unriddles the complexity of Bach’s dense counterpoint with an intense sincerity that borders on the severe at times, but he is able to also surrender to moments of heart-breaking fragility. This was most poignantly displayed in the Sarabandes of the English Suite, which were transfixingly profound in their meditative stillness. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about both these performances was the complete lack of ego from Anderszewski. The level of reverence and respect for this music is so palpable, we can almost see this performer’s heartfelt gratitude for every phrase and harmony. For allowing us to join him in this deeply personal and intimate moment I feel extremely thankful.

For full details of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music programme, visit their website.

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