Thunder and Agitation: Music Not Quite Ready to Be Sturm und Drang.

 Zelenka, Benda, Pisendel, C. P. E. Bach: Dresden and Berlin: A Celebration of Two Courts, 12th Annual Jerome L. Greene Concert, Juilliard415,  Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 4.11.2013 (SSM)

Zelenka: Symphonia to Sub olea pacis, ZWV 175
Benda: Symphonia No. 7 in D major
Pisendel: Violin Concerto in D major
Imitations des caractères de la dasnse                      
Zelenka: Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti, ZWV 187
C. P. E.  Bach: Symphony in E minor, Wq. 178

The years covered by the works on this program (1720-1760) saw a seismic shift in music from the ornate, highly charged, convoluted, even raucous late Baroque to the genteel, formal and disciplined music of the Classical period. Bach’s two eldest sons had careers that highlight the risks of being a composer during such a period of artistic upheaval. C. P. E. Bach had few problems, carving a niche for himself in the Court of Frederick the Great who gave him a wide berth to write music that was both experimental and personal. W. F. Bach, J. S. Bach’s eldest son, was also very talented but wasn’t quite comfortable writing in the style demanded by the music arbiters of the day (being an alcoholic and a gambler didn’t help either). His music is stylistically very much like Zelenka’s Hipocondrie.

This bizarre piece starts with the typical dotted rhythms of a French ouverture. Something, though, is just slightly off, enough to create a sense of wooziness. If Zelenka gives any one instrument the symptoms of hypochondria it would be the bassoon which at one point sounds like it has a bad case of hiccups. McGegan and orchestra struck just the right balance (or off-balance) to convey a sense of illness-induced unsteadiness. Throughout this work the lower instruments literally toot their way to the conclusion as the music modulates into parallel minor keys, the work ending with a return to the opening tempo and a coda that comes close to, but is not quite as dissonant as, the one Mozart wrote for his Musical Joke.

Franz Benda’s D-major Symphony is a pleasant enough gallantry but only interesting in its sharply rhythmic final movement. Without implying that this movement has any programmatic content (not that this would be uncommon for music of this period), there certainly is a lot of braying and hee-hawing. The syncopated measures give another rhythmic boost to the music’s jauntiness. This piece and the works that followed were expertly played and, I should add, expertly danced by Maestro McGegan.

Pisendel’s name is often associated with Vivaldi who befriended him on the former’s trips to Venice as a member of the Dresden Orchestra.  Both men were exceptional violinists and exchanged concerti as tokens of friendship, including a set of concerti and sonatas specifically written for Pisendel by Vivaldi. Vivaldi could almost have written the D-major concerto performed here, but Pisendel’s formatting differs from the template that Vivaldi used. It would be atypical of Vivaldi to wait so long after the opening for the violin to make its entrance and even more unusual to give the violinist an improvisational cadenza solo for his opening salvo. Edson Scheid was more than equipped to deal with the virtuosic challenges of the piece, and McGegan kept everything moving unrelentingly, conducting at the full tempo of Presto, never abating even during its most demanding measures.

The second half of the concert opened with Pisendel’s Imitations des caractères de la danse, which just might be one of the shortest of the popular dance suites written in that period: seven different dances ending with a “concertino” in less than seven minutes. Particularly of interest in this suite are the Musette and a Passepied that speeds up to a fevered pitch before the transition to an almost-as-fast Polonois.

Written in 1763, C. P. E. Bach’s Symphony in E minor is technically part of the so-called “Storm and Stress” period that covered the 1760s and 1770s. It is typical of the music of this brief period in its use of sharp shifts in mood and tempo. Bach, though, did not reserve his use of the minor key for his Storm and Stress symphonies as did Mozart (the two symphonies in G minor, No. 25 and No. 41).  In fact, C.P.E Bach was writing keyboard sonatas in this style as early as the 1730s and completed his 40 or so concerti for keyboard by 1760. The late E-minor symphony explores some of his Storm and Stress techniques: sudden shifts in dynamics, unbalanced phrasing, unexpected transitions between movements and long poignant slow movements, often punctuated by loud outbursts and long silences. This music was meant to surprise, and McGegan drove the orchestra to a frenzy with hard punches into the air, only to drop his boxing gloves for kid gloves during the softer moments.

McGegan responded to the audience’s warm applause with another symphony by Benda, briefly telling the audience that this symphony (No. 10 in G major) was only two and a half movements. In fact it was even less than that. The second movement barely ran past the thirty-second mark. It was a fitting conclusion to this entertaining program: an offbeat Hurdy Gurdy-like first movement punctuated by quick staccatos from the bassoon, and a final movement centered on a comic interplay between the horns and the winds. It was only here that the winds couldn’t quite come together, a small complaint for an otherwise professional performance.

All-in-all, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Stan Metzger


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