Bach and Czech Music Come Together with Varying Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Suk, Bach, and Dvořák: Jeremy Denk (piano), Academy of St Martin in the Fields (director: Tomo Keller). Cadogan Hall, London, 9.3.2015 (MB)

Suk – Serenade for Strings in E-flat major, op.6
Bach – Piano Concerto no.2 in E major, BWV 1053
Piano Concerto no.4 in A major, BWV 1055
Dvořák – Serenade for Strings in E major, op.22


A slightly odd programme, this: two Bach piano concertos sandwiched by string serenades by two Czech composers. Still, it doubtless made sense in the sense that there was no need for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to include any non-string players. And, whilst the Academy has always fielded excellent instrumentalists across the board, the foundation of its excellence since its founding by Neville Marriner has always been its string playing.

There was certainly no gainsaying that excellence in the performances of Serenades of Strings by Dvořák and his son-in-law, Josef Suk. Perhaps it is simply the nature of the ensemble for which both composers call; perhaps it is being English, whether in my case or the Academy’s (despite the international provenance of its players, ably led throughout by Tomo Keller). Whatever the reason, I could not help but note on several occasions something in the sound that put me in mind of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, op.20. That most prolific of recording artists, Sir Neville, has certainly recorded both the Dvořák and Elgar works; I do not know whether he has also left a version of the Suk. Hand on heart, it would be difficult to regret its loss too strongly. It is an amiable enough work, but its bland pleasantness, even with such gorgeous violin tone as we heard here, in a model performance of chamber music writ large, soon outstays its welcome, especially during the slow movement and finale. Dvořák’s work, unsurprisingly, has more character, although there is little that can be done about the abruptness of the finale’s transitions, a little too obviously attempting ‘cyclic’ recollection. That said, each of its five movements received sharp, attentive performances, the ASMF players clearly communicating their enjoyment in music-making. The lilt of the waltzing second movement was finely judged, as was the ‘singing’ of the melodies in the first. Rhythmic definition in the third did not lead to driving too hard, a splendid performative balance having been struck.

Would that one could have said the same for Jeremy Denk’s rendition of Bach’s E major Concerto. Every movement seemed a good few notches too fast: not necessarily a disaster, since most works can adapt to different choices of tempi. What Bachcan withstand far less easily, at least to my ears, is hard-driven performance, in which the music is not given space to breathe and the harmony and its implications are not permitted to tell. At times, the playing simply sounded garbled. For the most part, it did not, but we found ourselves once again in the situation outlined by Adorno more than sixty years ago: Bach reduced to the level of a generic Baroque composer. ‘They say Bach … mean Telemann.’ As Furtwängler wrote in an essay on Bach, the ‘astonishing superiority of Bach’s music [is never] clearer … than when one compares him with other composers of his time and environment’. Not necessarily so here. Moreover, it was a pity that the ASMF players, whilst far from eschewing vibrato, did not lavish such resplendent string tone on Bach’s music as they had and would upon his Czech companions. The A major Concerto fared better in every respect. Tempi, especially during the first and second movements, remained fast, but harmony was not neglected; nor were piano bass lines merely stabbed. The slow movement had true gravity, especially on account of searching string playing, whilst the finale, both in tempo and articulation, was perhaps the finest judged Bach movement of the evening.

Mark Berry

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