Globe-trotting – Virtual Bach from Wales and Singapore

United StatesUnited States Bach: Brecon Baroque / Rachel Podger (violin & director), Brecon Cathedral, UK; Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Darrell Ang (conductor). Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore. The concerts premiered online on 23 and 24.10.2020 respectively. (RP)

Darrell Ang (conductor) (c) Christine Bush

Bach Goldberg Variations BWV988 (arr. Chad Kelly), Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major BWV1048, Orchestral Suite No.1 in C major BWV1066, Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major, BWV1068

There are no silver linings to this pandemic, but there are opportunities, especially when it comes to easy access to music from around the world. Within the span of a week, I received invitations to view the Brecon Baroque Festival present The Goldberg Variations Reimagined; and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra perform an all-Bach concert, Music for All Time – Bach I. That wouldn’t have happened last February.

The two offerings attracted my interest for personal reasons as well as musical ones. Wales is a country that I have visited many times, although I have never been to Brecon. I hold a lifetime Cadw membership that affords me entry into historical sites throughout Wales and England. (When I asked what the letters stand for, the young man who sold me the membership sternly informed me that Cadw is not an acronym.) Hopefully, I shall return someday to hike in the Brecon Beacons National Park and attend the Festival in person.

As for Singapore, I lived there for two years and soaked up its vibrant cultural life as both critic and performer. It was a privilege to hear the Singapore Symphony on a regular basis. Its musicians wear their enthusiasm and personalities on their sleeves, making every performance a fascinating experience. The blend of cultures in Singapore makes it one of the most exciting places that I have lived, to say nothing of the fabulous food to be had there.

The English violinist Rachel Podger, founder of the Brecon Baroque Festival, is a leading interpreter of music from the Baroque and Classical periods. Each October, she invites some of the world’s leading period performers to her hometown of Brecon for a week of concerts and symposia. The festival’s resident ensemble, Brecon Baroque, consists of up an international line-up of world-class virtuosi in the period-instrument world, and specializes in one-to-a-part repertoire including Vivaldi, Biber and Bach.

Rachel Podger (violin) and Chad Kelly (harpsichord)
© Alexander Barnes

For the 2020 Festival, Podger turned to harpsichordist, composer and director Chad Kelly to reimagine Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Kelly enjoys a multi-faceted career that spans genres from historically-informed performance and chamber music to opera and musical theatre: his credits include music director for the West End production of Farinelli and the King and working on the world premiere of Thomas Adés’s opera The Exterminating Angel at the Salzburg Festival. His compositions have been performed by Podger, and he has toured with her as a duo partner.

Kelly breaks with the commonly-held view of the Goldberg Variations as a sacrosanct work of pure, absolute and abstract art, but he isn’t an iconoclast. By 1741, when the Goldberg Variations were published, Bach was regularly criticized for writing music that was complex and inaccessible to performers and listeners alike. Kelly’s premise is that Bach was sensitive to these attacks, and the Goldberg Variations are in part a response to his critics. Bach’s solution was to marry two opposing musical styles in the work: old-fashioned, archaic canon writing and the elaborate, more florid Galant style that was then gaining favor in the courts and opera houses of Germany. In other words, he proved that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

In his quest for authenticity, Kelly is not a rigid, doctrinaire purist. His rationale for arranging the keyboard works for an instrumental ensemble is that composers of Bach’s era did the same; they regularly reworked and reused their own pieces and had no qualms about borrowing heavily from others. Kelly’s intent was to be true to the essence of the work, especially the individual styles and genres referenced in the 30 variations, but to give it a liberal reading in which the authenticity of the instruments is prioritized over the notes on the page. In doing so, he scraped the barnacles from the Goldberg Variations, replacing austerity with exuberance.

The concert was filmed in August in the thirteenth-century south transept of the Brecon Cathedral, with a consort of nine instruments, including Podger on the violin and Kelly at the harpsichord. His brilliant orchestrations and the virtuosic playing of Brecon Baroque reveal new aspects of the work. Most importantly, Kelly’s adaptation reveals how comfortably the Goldberg Variations sit in the continuum of the composer’s oeuvre.

By assigning melodies to solo instruments, Kelly highlighted the direct links of the individual variations to the solo obligatos in the arias in Bach’s cantatas and massive choral works, while the ensemble playing linked them to the orchestral suites and concertos. The reflective, pensive mood so often associated with the Goldberg Variations was gone, and in its place were extravagant colors and excitement.

On the other side of the globe, the SSO streamed an all-Bach concert live, conducted by Singaporean-born conductor Darrell Ang, the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra. Ang studied composing in St. Petersburg and orchestral conducting at Yale University before undertaking an intensive study of Baroque music and the harpsichord at Italy’s Scuola di Musica di Fiesole.

Ang took the middle ground in his approach to three of Bach’s most popular instrumental works, applying period sensibilities to orchestral musicians performing on modern instruments. The players, however, are well versed in period style, as period specialists such as Masaaki and Masato Suzuki routinely come to Singapore to work with the symphony. There was no less vitality and sensitivity to style in the SSO’s performance, only an expected, less pungent sound than period instruments would have yielded.

The Brandenburg Concerto No.3 opened the concert and gave the SSO strings the opportunity to perform as soloists and ensemble players. The performance captured the rhythmic vitality of the work, especially in the incisive bowing and crisp articulation of the violins, but Ang availed himself of every opportunity to instill lyricism into the high-spirited music.

Oboes and bassoon enriched the textures and sounds of the ensemble in the Orchestral Suite No.1 without any loss of the transparency of sound that had been present in the first work. Sprightly wind playing added zest to Ang’s stately approach to this suite of French dances, a form already somewhat old-fashioned when Bach composed it early in his career.

The last of the three works on the program was the Orchestral Suite No.3 which contains the popular ‘Air on the G string’. With the addition of trumpets and tympani, the ensemble’s sound took on added brilliance. The SSO’s trumpets can be wonderfully boisterous, but they were played with restraint and elegance. At the end of the concert, Ang and the players faced the empty Esplanade Concert Hall and took a solemn, collective formal bow. There should have been a cheering audience, but that, of course, is impossible at the moment.

Bach dedicated the Goldberg Variations to music lovers and the refreshment of their spirits. Musicians everywhere understand the restorative nature of music. The opportunity to hear these two fine ensembles from opposite sides of the world perform the music of Bach is available to everyone. Seize the opportunity while you can.

Rick Perdian

To view the Singapore Symphony’s Music for All Time – Bach I, available through 7 November, click here.

To view the Brecon Baroque Festival’s The Goldberg Variations Reimagined, available through 31 January 2021, click here.

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