Well, He Certainly Got Around: St Luke’s Chamber Ensemble’s ‘Circling Bach’

United StatesUnited States S. Rossi, A. Vivaldi, G. F. Handel, C. P. E. Bach, Circling Bach: Myron Lutzke (cello), Elizabeth Mann (flute), St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, Brooklyn Museum, New York, 25.2.2012 (SSM)

Salamone Rossi:Sinfonia Grave
Sonata Settima Sopra L’Aria d’un Balletto
Sonata duodecima Sopra la Bergamasca
Vivaldi:Concerto for Cello in A minor RV. 420
Handel:Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 9 in F Major
C. P. E. Bach: Flute Concerto in D Minor H. 426
Geminiani: Variations in D Minor “La Folia” after Corelli

Having just attended a concert in a series called “Refracted Bach” where the “Gilded Goldberg Variations” were played, it did not seem strange to be at a concert entitled “Circling Bach.” Bach has, since his resurrection by Mendelssohn in the 1820s, been transcribed, transposed and varied upon by everyone from his own sons to Leopold Stokowski, and his scores have been rewritten for instruments as diverse as the harp, harmonica, accordion and Theremin. The circle of composers who influenced him are numerous: Vivaldi, Corelli, Buxtehude, Böhm, Telemann, d’Anglebert. His own circle of influence has extended into the twentieth century as seen in the music of Ives, Berg, Hindemith and Stravinsky; and to our current day in Phillip Glass, John Adams, Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

Salamone Rossi is best known today, if known at all, for his madrigals and for the fact that he was Jewish. While there was no direct connection between Rossi and Vivaldi or Bach (Rossi died fifty years before either was born), Bach might have known both Rossi’s use of the stile antico and his forays into the new stile moderno with its prominent use of counterpoint. The performance of these slight pieces would have benefited here from the timbre of original or original-style instruments. The addition of the cittern, resembling a mandolin although not of the mandolin family, added a lute-like sound that was very appealing.

The next work in the program, Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in A minor, must have been written for a particularly talented cellist: it requires considerable virtuosity, particularly in the final movement. Its unusual opening solo, supported only by the basso continuo, continues for nearly a minute before the orchestral ripieno comes in with a completely different theme. In fact the orchestra never plays the cello’s theme and the cello never plays the orchestra’s theme. The Andante second movement was poignantly played by Myron Lutzke, who also handled the difficult third movement Allegro with finesse. It would be hard to consider this unusually constructed concerto as one of the 500 concerti that Stravinsky joked were really one concerto written 500 times.

One connection between Bach and Handel’s Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 9, can be found in their common practice of appropriating previously written material for use in “new” compositions. For the second and third movements Handel simply took two movements from his Organ Concerto HWV 295, the so-called “Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” and rewrote the organ solo for strings. Bach had done the same many times. Although surprisingly there are no extant organ concerti by Bach, we do have a transcription for organ of the first movement of the Concerto for Keyboard in D Minor, BWV 1052; Bach used this as the opening of a “new” cantata, BWV 146. Part of Handel’s twelve brilliant Concerti Grossi, the Ninth is in some ways a synthesis of the whole set. Playing with a sensitivity to the different emotive elements of each movement, the SLCE was particularly fine in the intense and unusual central fugue.

The most neglected composer of the eighteenth century has to be  C. P. E. Bach, yet the second son of J. S. Bach was more popular in his day than his father ever was. According to C. P. E. scholar Jane R. Stevens this flute concerto may not have been a transcription of the Concerto in D Minor for Harpsichord H.425/W.22, but in fact the reverse: the flute concerto might be the original version of the score. Regardless of origin, this concerto in either form is wonderfully imaginative and inventive. Elizabeth Mann deserved a standing ovation for mastering the incredibly difficult solo part here, and the orchestra gave supple support, neither disappearing into the background or being so forward as to drown out Ms. Mann.

Geminiani’s Variations on “La Folia” after Corelli are in fact variations on variations and one of many, many similar compositions, Corelli’s were written for violin and basso continuo, C. P .E. Bach’s for keyboard and there is even one written by Gregorio Paniagua in 1980 that has, among other instruments, tablas, sitars and drums. The SLCE enthusiastically tossed off these twenty-four variations with confidence and aplomb.

Stan Metzger