Bach wins again

While the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House was staging Swan Lake by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the Small Hall gave the audience a Chamber Orchestra Concert. Musicians from the Cairo Symphony Orchestra performed works by Johann Sebastian Bach followed by Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 5.

Published on 14 April 2011 in Al Ahram Wekly

Eternal as he is, Bach is a ready attraction at any classical music evening. By the end of a hectic day, the composer always restores a sense of balance, strengthening morale. As such, Bach creates a dialogue with the listener, engages him without imposing an emotional charge. Yet the emotional element is still there, gently, almost unintentionally. Bach takes the audience onto a journey of perfection with music that carries all manner of combinations of clever melodies, wonderful phrases and striking colours. It suffuses the soul of the listener, leaving a lasting imprint.

Although he has inspired many composers in Western classical music history, half a century after death of Bach, his music is almost entirely forgotten. This can be easily explained by the 18th century thirst for new musical propositions; every emerging composition labelled the one before it old. It took a few decades and the dawn of Romanticism for the music world to shed light on the tremendous importance of Bach’s legacy.

It was in 1802 that Bach’s first biography was published in Leipzig. Written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel and titled †ber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents), the work is based on his extensive correspondence with people close to the composer; and it presents analyses of many of his works. The biography was part of the reason behind the revival of interest in Bach.

Beethoven praised Bach’s compositions saying, “Not ‘brook’, but ‘sea’ he should be called — because of his infinite, inexhaustible richness in combinations of tone and in harmonies.” But it was Robert Schumann, who in 1850 encouraged foundation of the Bach-Gesellschaft (“Bach Society”), who said, “We’re all plodders compared to Bach.” Johannes Brahms directed all future composers to the great master, stating: “Study Bach, there you’ll find everything.” Consequently, the 20th century has brought a remarkably large number of studies on harmonies and progressions in Bach compositions.

However Bach’s greatness cannot be limited to studies of his unprecedented musical logic, his almost mathematical approach to sound: heavenly harmonies and breathtaking rhythmic formations; his genius goes beyond the contrapuntal masterfulness. While works for the organ are closest to Bach’s soul, his masses, oratorios and passions carry a celestial supremacy. His motets and sacred choral compositions in their holiness capture a relationship between human and divine powers. The composer’s profound knowledge of the structure of instruments and techniques of performance helped him create masterful works incorporating a number of instruments.

Bach’s orchestral suites are nurtured by the French musical style of the era and based on stylized dances. The Suite for Orchestra in D Major BWV 1068 owes its popularity to its second movement Air (or aria), often referred to as the “Air for the G String”. Performed on 7 April, that composition was a safe choice on the part of Johannes Leertouwer, the Dutch conductor and one of the solo violinists of the evening. Loved by many music lovers, Bach is equally attractive to Egyptian listeners and during this concert they obviously enjoyed the three first movements performed from the five movement Suite.

The Suite for Orchestra in D Major carries a very positive mood. A calm and rather contemplative Air is originally performed by strings only, and this was the case during the evening. However in the last decades dozens of performances of Air were undertaken on a variety of solo instruments as well as instrumental combinations.

The main problem with famous works such as this Suite is that the audience will have listened to them many times. We all have preferences and expectations about the way that music — especially music that we know — is performed; and minor deviations from what is expected can turn into a disappointment. The chamber formation conducted by Leertouwer seemed to float with the music and the strings’ dynamics fluctuated wonderfully, adding much anticipated emotions.

Leertouwer’s biography stresses his vast experience in Baroque era music. He worked as a konzertmeister of the Anima Eterna ensemble and of the Netherlands Bach Society. His biography stresses his noteworthy achievements as a violinist, while his web site reveals that as a conductor Leertouwer has a broad repertoire and awareness of many styles and “he is especially interested in interpreting the Viennese classics, leading string orchestras and working with vocalists.” Leetrouwer conducted the Orchestra Osaka Symphoniker, conducted many music projects and his visit to Tehran Baroque Orchestra was praised by the formation, who called him “a Baroque specialist.”

No wonder, Bach in the hands of Leertouwer seems to sound light and very correct. Yet, the virtuosity of Leertouwer especially surfaced in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, also known as the Double Violin Concerto, in which he also played violin. This is possibly one of the best known Bach compositions and audience magnets. Filled with fugal and contrapuntal elements, this architectural masterpiece allows the soloists to perform contrasting passages against the support of the orchestra. Both soloists, Hossam Shehata and Leertouwer perfomed masterfully; undoubtedly each gave a technically remarkable performance. However a more unifying musical sensibility would have boosted the passion veiled in Bach’s composition.

The second half of the concert shifted to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major Op. 107 “ReformationÉh. In the hands of the Baroque conductor and violinist it was obvious that Mendelssohn belongs to another musical sphere. The very well performed Bach of the first half of the evening cast an obvious shadow over the Mendelssohn composition. Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 came too close in style to Bach and the Baroque era aesthetics were forcefully imposed on the composition. The timidity in the conductor’s interpretation resulted in a complete lack of the introspective elements otherwise characteristic of Romantic music like Mendelssohn’s.

But further analysis of Mendelssohn would overshadow the supreme pleasure of Bach. Let us leave with the impact of Bach and remember the words of David Blake on these pages in 2000: “JS Bach is the eternal musical take-away. He is always there. And fortunately there is always something worthwhile to move off with.”

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