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What music lover hasn't at some point wished to be a fly on the wall during a dinner table conversation in the J. S. Bach family? It seems unfair that we have hundreds of letters documenting the relationship between Mozart and his father, not to mention the younger Mozart's countless scatological comments that display for history the infantile personality as well as his sublime genius, but nary a hint of the personal dynamics within the Bach family. Thursday's concert by the Duke Collegium Musicum of selections from the music of Bach père and four of his progeny reflected musically what must have been fascinating family dynamics.
As everyone knows, J. S. was as prolific in generating children as he was in generating music, and he provided the entire education for those of his sons who showed musical promise. Then, each of the younger Bachs went on to develop his own individual style, more - but usually less - carrying on dad's heritage. Members of the Duke Music Department faculty along with student musicians played period instruments in a program including examples from the chamber music and proto-symphonic music by the sons, interspersed with arias from both the sacred and secular cantatas of the father and culminating with his Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.
The program was organized not by chronology but by musical genre. The extensive program notes guided the listener through each work, pointing out the musical influence, or lack thereof, from within the family. The first half of the concert included two sinfonie , one by J.C. Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), the penultimate and least known musical son of the Master and one by Wilhelm Friedmann (1710-1784) the eldest and blackest of the family sheep. These two works alone speak volumes about the Bach family. J.C. Friedrich was as much a pupil of his elder brother Carl Philipp Emmanuel as he was of his father. His Sinfonia, composed around the same time as Joseph Haydn's groundbreaking Symphonies 6, 7, and 8, is considered to fall within the genre of the early Classical symphony, both in structure and in its homophonic style that eschews the complex counterpoint of his father. In it's fiery opening allegro one can hear the influence of C.P.E.'s Sturm und Drang emotionalism, while the second movement andante is a fine example of the Italianate galant style made famous by his youngest brother Johann Christian. The performance of the difficult passagework in the first movement, requiring precisely coordinated in rhythm, attack and musicianship, had some intonation problems, especially in the fast unison playing in the violins. Later in the concert, the intonation issues pretty much disappeared.
The following Quintet in D major by Johann Christian (1735-1782), the so called "London Bach" and baby of the family, was from another musical universe than that of his father, fitting squarely in the galant Classical style that he is credited with pioneering. Would daddy have approved, much less been proud? Visiting Duke faculty members, flautist Rebecca Troxler and baroque oboist Geoffrey Burgess were joined by student violinist Elizabeth Jelinek and violist Sharleen Johnson with continuo provided - for the entire concert - by harpsichordist Chris Hampson and gambist Stephanie Vial. Here too there were some intonation problems, caused largely by the instability of pitch in the oboe, in this case looking like a tenor recorder with a double reed. The poor benighted instrument underwent considerable development in order to eliminate such problems.
The first half of the program concluded with the Sinfonia for Strings in F major, by Wilhelm Friedmann. Clearly the inspiration for P.D.Q., Wilhelm Friedmann proved to be rather unstable, both in his personal life and in his music. One has to wonder what his father thought of his eldest's creations (if he ever heard them); their melodic angularity, sudden grand pauses, dissonances and quirky harmonic shifts are closest in style to the highly emotional, yet more refined, mature works of his brother, C.P.E. Wilhelm Friedmann really seems to fall into a category of unstable geniuses that includes Hector Berlioz and Carlo Gesualdo, whose psychological issues seem to have played out in their music. Oddly, the extremes of the first and third movements disappeared entirely in the two minuets that conclude the piece - we know of no other work, suite or symphony, that ends with two minuets. In the performance, the intonation problems were largely solved and the performers seemed to enjoy going to extremes.
The second half of the program began with the Trio Sonata in b minor for flute and violin, an early effort of C.P.E. probably composed while he was still living at home. A conservative work composed completely in the style of - and perhaps under the thumb of - his father, the Sonata, when considered alongside C.P.E.'s mature works, suggests the Bach family dynamic more clearly than any other piece on the program: the son towed the musical line at home and cut loose with a vengeance once he was on his own. The performance by flutist Rebecca Troxler and violinist Sam Breene was outstanding. Troxler can really make the Baroque flute sing out, and Breene, in all his performances of the evening, showed technical superiority and control, as well as a fine feel for the music.
There were three cantata arias by J.S. on the program, two in the second half, but we'll consider them all here. Soprano Jenny Woodruff, accompanied by oboist Burgess tackled "Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot" from Cantata BWV 84 with great success. Her clear lyric voice systematically overcame the breathing and tessitura hurdles that the composer routinely puts up in his soprano arias, with some energy left for a fine interpretation. Later, Tamsin Simmill performed the aria "Leget euch dem Heiland unter" from Cantata BWV 182, accompanied by Peter Sinnaeve on recorder. Simmill has a lovely voice but lacked the projection power necessary for the lower register that dominates the piece. Sinnaeve, who made his only appearance on the program, put in a fine performance with a bell-like tone. Soprano Lesley Curtis performed the last aria, "Angenehmer Zephyrus" from the secular cantata BWV 205. Curtis too has a clear, light voice appropriate for the music.
The program concluded with the Fifth Brandenburg concerto, one of conservative J.S.'s flights of fancy and a true tour de force. Flautist Kasey Mattia joined Breene and Hampson as soloists. The performance of this extremely familiar work suffered somewhat in comparison to the digital perfection we have grown to expect in our digital libraries. Mattia had trouble making the baroque flute project and balance with the violin, and Hampson stumbled in some places during the long, flashy cadenza. We suspect that both of these issues are often solved in recordings with some creative sound engineering and multiple takes.
The collegium musicum has a long tradition. Fittingly for this concert, part of J.S. Bach's functions as Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig was to lead the activities of the ctiy's collegium musicum. The Duke Collegium concerts have steadily improved over the years, not least because of the fine performing musicians who populate its graduate program in musicology. But talented amateurs are also welcome, for example recorder player Sinnaeve, who takes time out from his residency in cardiology to play.