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Friday, June 12, 2020

What’s New Is Old Again

From the Musical Vault Dept.: While combing the files for Monday’s post, I came across this review, written a couple of weeks later. I have no surviving appointment books from 1985, so my autobiography will have to be assembled from reviews like these. At least you know where I was and what I heard!


ASTON MAGNA, A MUSICAL GROUP that takes its name from the estate in Great Barrington, Mass. in which its first performances took place, makes a specialty of recreating the circumstances under which the composer might have heard his music.

Aston Magna, Great Barrington, Mass.
This involves the use of historical or historically-styled instruments and a keen study of ancient performance practices, and can be particularly appropriate to a composer like J.S. Bach, whose music has gone through two and a half centuries of various stylings. Sunday afternoon, the audience at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass., was treated to a varied and innovative all-Bach program which demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of such historically-minded playing.

The five works on the program offered a commendable contrast. The opening piece, a concerto for oboe d’amore and strings, was reconstructed from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A, BWV 1055. That’s a practice Bach himself was fond of: transcribing his works, especially concertos, for different solo instruments; the oboe d’amore set the historical mood. Soloist Stephen Hammer made the difficult part sound easy, and was backed by an ensemble of four string players and harpsichord.

Stanley Ritchie played the next piece, Sonata No. 3 in C for solo violin. This is as challenging to present as it is to perform; a favorite of violinists, it isn’t easily accessible to a non-fiddling audience. Much of its magic lies in the clever suggestion of chords and counter-melodies to compensate for the violin’s inabilty to produce more than two notes at a time. During Bach’s day a curved bow often was used, which would enable the performer to play all of the strings at once; Ritchie chose to use the more traditional equipment, and seemed at the same time cautious about bringing out, for example, the great chords of the second movement, a fugue. His playing of the subsequent Largo was very sensitive, but he tackled the wicked finale at a tempo far in excess of his technical equipment.

The pursuit of musical excellence leads the best performers to search for something new. In recent years, the new way to play old music has been on old instruments to the point where it’s become something of a fad. It’s to the credit of the best composers that they wrote far beyond the technical limitations of the day, so this practice should be tempered with the desire to make the music as attractive as it is correct.

The high voices in cantata performance in Bach’s day were those of boys, although his soprano parts are better served by the voice of a well-trained woman. In Aston Magna’s version of the “Wedding Cantata,” BWV 202, soprano Sally Sanford sang like a boy: reedy and with little vibrato, which seemed a waste of a good voice and an unnecessary bow to the past; her German pronunciation also left much to be desired.

Aston Magna music director John Hsu, himself a performer on and instructor of viola da gamba, introduced his arrangement of the Gamba Sonata in G, BWV 1029. Although he described it as taking much inspiration from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (which also was scored for low strings), it seemed to be modeled upon the Concerto in d for Two Violins, with two violas here featured as soloists. It certainly fills a need in the viola literature, although the performance, by David Miller and Nancy Wilson, was so restrained that the soloists’ roles were obscured. As much as the ensemble spirit may be stressed in Baroque performance, it ought not to be a crime to let a player shine once in a while.

The concluding work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, was taken at a breakneck tempo throughout, and again violinist Stanley Ritchie played a tough part with little musical coherence; it was all the two recorder players – David Carp and the fine Stephen Hammer – could do to keep up with him. A fine supporting ensemble played throughout the program, and should be individually commended.

Continuo was provided by harpsichordist Lionel Party and cellist Loretta O’Sullivan (whom I would have enjoyed hearing play a Bach Cello Suite); the violinists were Nancy Wilson (who switched to viola when necessary) and Linda Quan; Brent Wissick and John Hsu played gamba; and Michael Willens played the hefty violone.

The auditorium at Jacob’s Pillow was a splendid concert environment (although not immune to the heat and humidity, which played havoc with the tuning). Aston Magna will present two more concerts there this summer: on Sunday, a program honoring Handel, Haydn, and Mozart (and featuring Handel’s Harpsichord Suite 5, with the variations on a tune known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith”), and Sunday, July 28, with a concert of music from 17th-century France and England. Both performances will begin at 3 p.m.

– Schenectady Gazette, 16 July 1985

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