For Connoisseurs and Lovers of Music

United StatesUnited States Benda, Frederick II, Quantz, Bach, C. P. E. Bach, The Flute King: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie (conductor), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 22-10-2012 (SSM)

Franz Benda: Sinfonia No. 1 in C major, LI: 1
Frederick I, King Of Prussia: Flute Concerto No. 3 in C major
Johann Joachim Quantz: Concerto for Flute in G major, QV5: 174
Johann Sebastian Bach: Ricercar a 6 from Musical Offering, BWV 1079
C. P. E. Bach: String Symphony No. 5 in B minor, Wq. 182
Concerto for Flute in A major, Wq. 168

The title of this review refers to a published set of keyboard sonatas by C. P. E. Bach entitled Für Kennen und Liebhaber. Translations for “Kennen” range from “connoisseur” to “expert.” “Liebhaber” could mean “amateur” or “enthusiast.” The distinctions were clear to Bach and his contemporaries: the sonatas in this set are equally playable by both groups. The first group would be challenged by the complexities of the difficult pieces, while the second would find delight in those with simpler melodies. No denigration was implied; if it were, no “Liebhabers” would have bought his scores.

I say this as a prelude to a concert whose first half was pleasant enough in its late Rococo elegance to please the “Liebhabers” in the audience. Although, from their spontaneous recognition in the encore of J. S. Bach’s Badinerie from his second suite and their laughter when Pahud played it half-seriously, I would say that most of the audience were Kenners.

It was the second half of the concert that made this performance special. The highlight of the evening was the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering. The instrumentalists stood in a semi-circle around the conductor, and slowly each of the six voices spoke, only to be covered by the entrance of another voice, until the double bass’s notes stormed in. At this point all sixteen instruments weaved in and out, carrying their individual lines to the final notes. The theme, a simple motif written by Fredrick the Great, lent itself to this kind of development, but it took a composer like Bach to see the theme’s potential and set it free. It’s interesting that the great variations of Bach, A Musical Offering, The Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations, and similarly Beethoven’s The Diabelli Variations, are based on insipid themes. It is almost as if the composers thrived on the melodies’ shallowness and the fact that any variations could only be improvements!

Bernard Labadie could not have done a better job controlling this wild ride: every line was clear and every entrance of that line was distinct and audible against the musical background. The strings were rich and lush without ever going over the top, and this version of the Musical Offering produced a sound much like a Bach organ work. By having fewer players on stage, Labadie avoided making the piece sound as if it were a transcription by Stokowski. The same performance with double or triple the string players would have given the work a heftier and inappropriate styling.

It was Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who suffered most from not being able to find a way out from under his father’s shadow and musical style. The works that he wrote have an imbalance that is woozy and schizoid. Brilliant as W. F. was, the brother closest to him in age, Carl Philip Emmanuel, was successful in freeing himself from his father. Like his older brother, C. P. E. wrote eccentric music, but he had the capacity to lead a normal life: financially solvent and admired and respected as composer and keyboardist to the royal courts of Berlin and Hamburg.

We get glimpses of these eccentricities in the symphony performed here. In the first movement there are sudden jumps, modulations, pregnant pauses and changes in tempo: all trademarks of C.P.E. Bach. You get glimpses of this period style in the music from the first part of the program, but the spark of genius is not there.

Labadie gave an intense and passionate reading of the C. P. E. Bach symphony and was well onboard for Emmanuel Pahud’s rendition of the A minor flute concerto. As strongly as Pahud had held our attention in the first half of the program, he was unquestionably more committed to this masterful piece of music. The wild outer movements were in sharp contrast to the poignant, heartbreakingly slow second movement. Both Labadie and Pahud took a moment of silence before playing this movement, perhaps needing some time to prepare themselves for the intensity of the work’s innigkeit.

What better praise can I give to Pahud then to compare him favorably to another great flautist, who had a similar interest in music of this era and played it both mellifluously and fluidly many times upstairs at Carnegie Hall: Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Stan Metzger