The Bach Suites Receive an Impressive Facelift from Monica Huggett and Gonzalo Ruiz

CanadaCanada Vancouver Bach Festival 2016 – Bach: Monica Huggett (violin and director), Gonzalo Ruiz (oboe), Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, 12.8.2016. (GN)

Monica Huggett and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra at the Vancouver Bach Festival
© Jan Gates

Bach, The Four Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-1069

Monica Huggett’s desire to penetrate the ‘authentic’ Baroque experience has remained undiminished by the passage of time. Last year, she coaxed the Portland Baroque Orchestra into one of the most vivid versions of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that one might encounter, capturing the wildness and theatrics that may have been commonplace for virtuoso violinists of the composer’s era. This time, we witnessed her rethinking of the Bach Orchestral Suites. Over the past four decades, the violinist has played the Suites so many times under such masters of authentic performance as Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, and Ton Koopman that one might think that there is little room for further innovation. Nonetheless, making recourse to research on Bach’s Cöthen days (1717-1723) – by Joshua Rifkin in the 1990’s and this concert’s oboist Gonzalo Ruiz more recently –a new ‘original version’ came to fruition. The biggest changes involve returning Suite No. 2 to its original key of A minor and substituting the oboe for the flute; and removing the trumpets and timpani from Nos. 3 and 4. While it may take a few moments to get used to this reworking, it succeeded wonderfully well. The oboe adds strength and purpose to No. 2, while the adjustments in the last two Suites free them in part from the festive intimations of some of the Cantatas, and allow their sinewy counterpoint to stand out more starkly. One can well accept a slight reduction in grandness and nobility when the uncompromising genius in the works radiates forth in such a crystalline way.

Monica Huggett recorded this revised version of the Suites with Gonzalo Ruiz and Ensemble Sonnerie for Avie in 2009. This concert revealed just how finished these interpretations are and just how well the Pacific Baroque can negotiate the challenges involved. In fact, the performance struck me as somewhat more intense and decisive than the recording. At buoyant tempos, one is immediately taken by the spontaneous enthusiasm and sense of motion, yet all this is thought out in a very sophisticated way. There is sharp rhythmic and dynamic control throughout, with endless variety in the dances too. Huggett seems to put her finger on the exact character of each dance, varying phrase length, staccato and legato postures, and sforzandi to allow it to unfold with both naturalness and strength. One is always made aware of the interplay between the contrapuntal lines, sometimes uncompromising, other times enticingly playful.

Suite No. 1 remains unchanged from the conventional instrumentation, so the interpretation can be most easily compared with what we are used to. The Overture had many purposive accents but was also phrased in desirably long paragraphs. The latter gave the movement both a nice sense of underlying flow – and a touch of elegance too – from which to launch the vibrant fugal Allegro. Dances were mainly on the quick side, and most of them had a convincing energy, often conjuring up a feeling of joy. I was intrigued with how artfully the instrumental lines were exposed and how well everything meshed in the texture, including the winds. The final dances were particularly upbeat, and set the seal on a reading that balanced enthusiasm with structural insight.

In the second Suite, the switch from B minor back to A minor and the substitution of the oboe for flute are substantive changes. The adjustment in key makes the work impossible for the flute to play, and while the violin might be an obvious alternative, Ruiz makes a convincing argument for the oboe. There’s no doubt that the work achieves a greater tonal richness this way, and it allows for a greater dramatic weight. While the flute version typically makes the work delightful and frothy, the oboe seems to want to go deeper. This was evident right away in the Ouverture, which had strong thrust and often introduced a dark foreboding. There was richer character in the Rondeau too, Ruiz’s oboe at its expressive best in a very tightly knit Sarabande. There was a cheekiness in the Polonaise, and the rough, uncompromising edges of the Menuet were brought to the fore. This style conveys the implicit rusticity of the pieces. With the conjectured change from ‘Badinerie’ to ‘Battinerie’ (Battle Music) for the fleet and delightful finale, it too emerged as stronger and more dramatic. Here Ruiz’s feathery articulation was remarkable, and the oboist’s tonal precision, range of colour, and sheer agility were sufficiently intoxicating to convince us.

I missed the trumpets to some degree in Nos. 3 and 4, but was impressed by how well the anchoring lower strings made up for their absence. One could get used to this. Again, there was a redeeming virtue: without pomp and stateliness, the shape, sinew, and contrapuntal complexity of these pieces is laid bare. The Ouverture of No. 3 had a particularly engaging shape, opening out to a very clean Allegro where great attention was paid to the counterpoint and to the exactness of the note values. The famous ‘Air on the G-string’ was moved along briskly without a trace of sentimentality. Huggett made its lines more varied, exploiting the interaction with violinist Chloe Myers and perhaps hinting at the style of the equally-famous Double Concerto. There was strong angularity in the remaining dances, particularly the Gavottes. The Ouverture of the final Suite maintained a similarly rugged feel with considerable dramatic projection, making way for a rollicking Allegro. The three oboes were on the mark throughout. This was ardent, purposive playing, structurally clear yet taking time to find delightful moments of wit in the subsequent dances, not least in the closing Réjouissance.

Overall, these performances really made you sit up and listen to the music anew. There was no attempt to soften structures or adorn them with something foreign, and the composer’s immense genius came through in spades. This is not to say that, in certain moods, I wouldn’t like to hear the trumpets or the flute again, or relax into interpretations that are a little less demanding. But this ‘original version’ of the Suites is very successful, and should receive the widest hearing. There couldn’t have been a better way to end this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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