Singapore Bach and Family: VCH Chamber Series, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Peter Hanson (leader), Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore. 15 & 16.8.2014 (RP)
Bach and Family I, August 15
Lynnette Seah, violin
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Symphony No.2 in E-flat major, Wq.183, No. 2
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No.6 in B-flat major, BWV1051
Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV1043
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Symphony No.1 in D major, Wq.183, No. 1
Bach and Family II, August 16
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Symphony in C major, Wq. 182, No. 3
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Symphony in D major, Fk. 64
Johann Christian Bach: Symphony in D major, Op. 18, No. 4
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Two concerts by members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) under the leadership of English violinist Peter Hanson presented the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his three of his sons – Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian. Seminal figures on the European music scene for the better part of a century, the sons broke with the Baroque style of their father and were leaders in the transition from the Baroque to the Classical era. It is their fate to have lived in an age of giants spanning from Handel, Telemann and yes their father to Mozart and Haydn. The VHC Chamber Series provided a rare and welcome opportunity to hear a sampling of their prodigious output. The apples did not fall far from the tree in that regard.
Hanson is well versed in period instrument performance practice having worked with some of the world’s top ensembles in the genre. Equally versed in the Baroque and Classical style, he was only partially successful in bringing his talents and experience to bear in these concerts. Various configurations of members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performed and new faces were constantly appearing on stage. When Hanson was actually conducting, he was able to transmit his intentions to the players and they responded in kind. Without him at the helm, things got off course. He has his violin with him at all times. If he is playing it fine, otherwise it should be left off stage. Most of the time however, it is really just a prop and a distraction to the performers and audience alike.
The first concert was equally divided between the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.), in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his birth, and that of his father. Truth be told, the son stole the show. The final work of the program, C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major was the high point of the evening. His symphonies follow a three movement plan of fast-slow-fast, and although there is a continuo part it plays a much smaller role than it did in his father’s time. The SSO musicians were totally at ease with the stylistic demands of the piece, and Hanson drew a spirited and polished performance out of them. That was not the case with the works that preceded it.
Seven strings appeared to perform Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, but no violins as the solo lines are given to two violas. Hanson was thus not on stage and he was missed. Despite fine playing from the two violists, the performance was ponderous and dull. The excellent and dynamic principal cellist, Ng Pei-Sian did his utmost to provide the spark, but it just never caught fire. Things improved with Hanson back on stage, partnering with Lynnette Seah in the double violin concerto. Seah was elegance and poise personified, as was her playing. Hanson’s playing left less of an impression, but he was doing double duty also leading the musicians. The concerto never really took flight however, as there was once again a certain heaviness and lack of clarity to the ensemble’s playing.
The second concert brought a change of musicians and was an altogether more satisfying experience. C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony in C major was followed by the symphonies of his older brother Wilhelm Friedemann and the much younger Johann Christian. Johann Christian, the “English Bach”, was only 15 when his father died. He distanced himself to a greater extent than the others from his father’s legacy, studying in Italy and moving to London where he courted and found royal favor. Wilhelm Friedemann was purportedly the most gifted of Bach’s children, but his personality got in the way of his obtaining formal employment. He died in poverty, Johann Christian left behind a mass of debt, while C.P.E. ended his days a prosperous man in Hamburg.
With Hanson conducting, the SSO players delivered sprightly performances of the three brothers’ symphonies. As was the case in the first concert, the woodwinds (flutes in particular), and horns played with marvelous tone. The symphony of Johann Christian call for larger forces and the trumpets and tympani brought some much appreciated brilliance to the concert.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 was an apt way to end the series, as it presented the elder Bach as an innovator, combining the elements of the Baroque dance suite with the then newer Vivaldi-style concerto, with its alternation between orchestra and soloist. Hanson also got a proper solo turn, giving the audience the opportunity to appreciate his formidable skills as a violinist. Abetted by brisk tempi, the counterpoint was never stodgy, orchestra and soloist communicated effortlessly, and the horns, oboes and bassoon sounded terrific in the ever changing musical textures. This was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as it should be.