Democratic chamber music and fantastic musicianship from The Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach, The complete Brandenburg Concertos: Miki Takahashi (violin), James Eastaway (oboe), David Blackadder (trumpet), Robin Bigwood (harpsichord), The Feinstein Ensemble / Martin Feinstein (director/flute/recorder).  Kings Place, London, 1.4.2023.  (CS)

Martin Feinstein

The Feinstein Ensemble’s Bach Weekend has become one of the eagerly awaited events of London’s annual musical calendar, in the past presented on the Southbank and latterly at Kings Place.  Subtitled ‘Master of the Dance’, this year the ‘mini-festival’ included performances of several sets of six: the sonatas and partitas for solo violin (Miki Takahashi), the solo cello suites (Christopher Suckling), the harpsichord partitas (Robin Bigwood), and in this concert on Saturday evening in which the Feinstein Ensemble were joined by acclaimed soloists, the complete Brandenburg Concertos.

To see Bach’s imaginative variations on the concerto grosso form as a ‘set’, though, is, of course, erroneous – and historically ‘inauthentic’.  And, it’s not a trap that The Feinstein Ensemble tripped into, emphasising instead the individuality of each of the works and the diversity of style, colour and form.

The autographed score which Bach presented in 1719 to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, who had commissioned some compositions, was in fact a clean copy of previously composed works; and, extant secondary copies of the latter (the originals are lost) – as well as the different scoring and the tonalities of the sequentially arranged six concerti (F-F-G-G-D-B-flat), which suggest an arbitrary grouping – indicate that the concertos were probably composed over an extended period of time, and thus reflect Bach’s changing compositional thinking during the periods when he was working at the courts of Sachsen Weimar and Anhalt-Köthen, and the social and cultural contexts unique to these courts.  Some of the concertos look back, though inventively, to a former age, while others, in particularly the fifth concerto with its extraordinary writing for the harpsichord, look forward to new forms and styles.

Presided over by flautist Martin Feinstein, whose direction was very much ‘light touch’, the Ensemble offered wonderfully cohesive, democratic chamber music, instinctively enjoying the intra-musical relationships that developed through the unfolding of the concertos’ arguments.  Soloists had presence but were integrated within the group – though, in fact, occasionally I found myself wishing for those soloists to stamp their own fingerprint on the music more emphatically, to create drama and ‘tension’ to counter the prevailing harmony and assimilation.  A few rough edges, now and then, would have been the icing on the cake!

But, there was little to fault with what we had.  The one instrument to a part approach naturally resulted in transparency and fluidity, but it also made the varied colours and textures of Bach’s tonal palette sharper too.  The technical assurance was unassuming, and though this must be must be music that they know inside-out and backwards, the musicians made it sound fresh and conveyed a sense of delight in discover

They began with the biggest, in terms of numbers of performers, most colourful, and the longest of the concertos, No.1 in F BWV 1046.  There was a fine balance between the wind and strings, as conversations passed back and forth across the semi-circle, with Christopher Suckling and Kate Brooke (bass) providing sure direction and drive from the bottom.  The horns (Richard Bayliss and Martin Lawrence) relished Bach’s treacherous writing: the third movement Allegro was particularly punchy and ebullient – the thrill of the hunt was brought vigorously into the genteel environment of Hall One.  Oliver Webber seemed happily at home with his piccolo violin, although he might have been a little more assertive in the Adagio, against the weight of the plangent oboes and stepwise bass line.  The elegance of the conversations between Suckling’s cello and the violins in the final Menuet was a delight, and courteously passed to the oboes and bassoons.  The bucolic spirit was bright but never overly boisterous.

Vigour and vitality were followed by richness and resonance in the less frequently heard sixth concerto (BWV 1051) in which the lower strings are joined by two viola da gambas (Emily Ashton and Mark Caudle).  In the opening, Allegro alla breve, as the violas danced and played in close imitation, Suckling enjoyed his incursions into their dialogues, and the interlacing lines were brilliantly phrased, the cadences shaped and focused while never restraining the forward momentum.  There was more soloistic articulation in the Adagio ma non tanto, in which the da gambas are silent, while the finale was a buoyant dance with an Italianate spirit as individual voices came to the fore.

Concerto No.4 in G BWV1049 brought the first half to a close, Feinstein joined by Emily Bloom to croon through the recorders’ mellifluous intertwinings as Miki Takahashi’s bow swept evenly across the strings with superb definition and clarity.  In the opening Allegro, dynamism was provided by Suckling and Brooke, but there was a fitting calm in the Andante, the melodies seeming to be formed as they unfolded – though perhaps a little more freedom in the pacing and phrasing would have added a dash of rapture to the prevailing composure.  After Feinstein’s brief cadenza segued the ensemble into the Presto, Takahashi’s bariolage won the arguments, and the gestural rhetoric of the whole was persuasive – never mannered, emerging from within the music rather than imposed from without.

The one-to-a-part format gave a sense of equality and collective creativity in the third concerto (BWV 1048) which picked up the sequence after the interval.  There was some unfussy and crystal clear violin acrobatics in the first, brisk Allegro (played without repeats) – a conversation not a contest – and fine, buoyant playing, though again I felt that a little more space to breathe at the punctuations points, rather than a relentless racing might have created more ‘theatre’.  The cadential chords that separate the two movements were preceded with a short and stylish cadential episode from Webber, but a longer pause on the chords would have created more a sense of greater anticipation and release, when the finale started flying.  The articulation in the latter was light – again, I’d have liked a bit more ‘bite’ and the occasional gritty timbre – but there was an apt joie de vivre.

Concerto No.5 in D BWV 1050 is perhaps the most interesting of the six concertos, the crazy harpsichord cadenza in the first Allegro seeming to herald the age of the Classical keyboard concerto.  I think there could have been a bit more sense of ‘unrest’ here – if not an outright ‘revolution’!  The debates between the flute (Feinstein – playing with a lovely transparent tone) and violin (Takahashi) felt a little ‘civil’ at times.  It’s hard not to smile at the harpsichord’s manic disruptiveness, but Robin Bigwood’s virtuosity was delivered with a modesty and coolness that was almost ironic.  The re-entry of the other instruments was assertive, as if to silence the intrusion into the hierarchical courtly discourse, but Bigwood teasingly continued to insert flourishes into the subsequent ritornelli.

The flamboyance and joyfulness of the second concerto (BWV 1047), with its quartet of soloists (violin, oboe, recorder and trumpet) made for a satisfying complement to the rich colours of the first concerto which had opened the performance.  In the Allegro the hues were constantly changing and there was a sense of infinite invention; the Andante was eloquent, with some especially lovely playing from oboist James Eastwood.  A good tempo, not too fast, was set for the Allegro assai which saw trumpeter David Blackadder pipe like an organ, pumped up by an agile cello and countered by the nasality of the oboe.  The soloists were a distinct group but still part of the greater whole.

The musicians – and the audience – enjoyed it so much that after the enthusiastic applause, there was nothing for it but to play the final flourish of Bach’s invention once again.

Claire Seymour

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