Scottish Chamber Orchestra: John Butt (Queen’s Hall: 10 Dec. ’15)

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“But few will now be able to forget the jazz-like syncopations and whirling demisemiquavers”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

“Since 13 May 1871 Bach’s blood has ceased to flow in mortal veins!” concluded the Aberdonian scholar Charles Sandford Terry in 1930. Despite Johann Sebastian having 20 children, ten surviving to adulthood, it was for many years thought this centuries-old line of exceptional musicians had died out.

Genealogists have been delighted to discover, however, that the eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not only a highly productive (if temperamental) musician, but through his fecund daughter a tiny band of U.S. based descendants have in recent years been discovered. At the Queen’s Hall on Thursday 10 December, it was for many the survival of W. F. Bach’s “Adagio and Fugue” F 65 (c.1740-5) which was the great discovery; the limpid flute-writing of adagio giving way to a vigorous and angular fugue of high order: subject, countersubject, stretto and inversion being hurled, attaco, by the enthusiastic players of the SCO.

Conductor John Butt firstly gave a stylish rendering of Johann Sebastian’s 4th Suite (Ouverture) in D, BWV 1069. The repetitive nature of gavottes, minuets and bourreés can sound tritely mechanical, but with subtle changes to phrasing and articulation, coupled with flexible tempi, the whole became animated and variegated, right up to the triumphal final Rejouissance.

Central to the programme was virtuoso bassoonist Peter Whelan, in the demanding C. P. E. Bach Concerto in A minor, Wq 170. Few will have heard this adaptation for bassoon before; but few will now be able to forget the jazz-like syncopations and whirling demisemiquavers. It is this superb instrumentalist who makes the galant writing a hit, and without him ovation and encore would be lesser or absent. Whereas the W. F. Bach work is a tribute to papa (reminiscent the more horribly difficult fugues of the Well Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-893), his brother at the court of Frederick the Great, namely Carl Phillip Emmanuel, is here in full rebellion against the structural emphasis of the father. The work swerves in mood and tempo: a son in a traffic-weaving go-faster Porsche, attempting to overtake the father in his stately processional Mercedes ……

The programme thus takes us from Baroque to Classical via the half-world represented by the Bach sons. To end: the well-familiar Symphony No 40 in G minor by Mozart; in the acoustic comfort-zone for many. Nevertheless, the minor key keeps the audience in thrall to the hints of tonal instability, and even menace, interplaying with the gracious theme of the first movement. At one point the strings’ suspirum seems more like expiration than sighing; and the natural horns are strangely dominant to one side of the hall. Their authentic resonance enlivens the sound universe for the work; more balance would be a further plus: try horns centre stage?

Meanwhile, let’s repeat this programmatic formula: the trusted repertoire enlivened by the Butt baton, and supplemented by the artful compositions of the younger Bachs. The audience went away filled with good things. May they return for more  …..


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Reviewer: Peter Smaill (Seen 10 December)
Peter is a guest contributor to Edinburgh49 and Chairman of Bach Network UK, a charity founded by John Butt and others to facilitate international dialogue and understanding of the works and context of Johann Sebastian Bach, amongst musicologists, performers and enthusiasts.

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