'A Portrait of Two J.S. Bach', on Bach: Orchestral Suites, Musical Offering / Menuhin, EMI
By John Stone
On this budget double CD, reissuing separate 1960 studio recordings conducted and performed by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, there are two Johann Sebastian Bach's to be found. There is the fashionable Bach of the Orchestral Suites (1731), spinning out charming, gallant gavottes, sarabandes, menuets, bourees, and other dance-related forms made popular by French ballet music, and that would pave the way toward the future of 'Classical' orchestral and chamber music. Then there is the unfashionable, 'outmoded' Bach of A Musical Offering (1747), composing enormous tributes to counterpoint, fugue and canon when these were increasingly unpopular at the dusk of the European High Baroque.
To be sure, aspects of both these extremes- the gallant and contrapuntal styles- are to be found simultaneously in practically all of Bach's compositions, no matter how heavily weighted toward one side. The Orchestral Suites (multi-section works that, in Bach's handling, abstract and 'elevate' the dance forms on which they are based) contain not only thick polyphonic texturing that beef up the predominantly gallant material, but also employ fugal processes, particularly in the grand Overtures to each Suite. Conversely, A Musical Offering, while existing as one of the most 'scientific' and Old School investigations of imitative composition in Bach's oeuvre, nevertheless adopts many stylistic trappings of the Italian concerto masters, with long melodic lines and pathopoeia (sighing, descending) figures.
The Bach Festival Orchestra (BFO) under the baton of consummate artist Yehudi Menuhin delivers sumptuous and moving performances of the stately Suites. Probably the best known of all the movements is the famous Air from the Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068, sometimes referred to as 'Air on A G Sting.' Often used for wedding processionals and the suchlike, its long, aching melodies in the violins hold an atmosphere of quiet splendor as the celli unfold a slow walking bass beneath them. Here, and elsewhere in these Suites, The BFO produces a sound fairly common from the period, with large proportions and tremulous vibrato. While their sound is undoubtedly 'gorgeou', the instruments (with the exception of a token harpsichord) and more importantly, playing style are not in keeping with current notions of 'historically accurate' performance practice. I think the fatal problem here is not the choice of instrument but the fairly monotonous, if reverent approach, such that the pieces tend to sound like one another. More dynamic renditions of these Orchestral Suites can be found under the direction of Sir Neville Mariner (on Philips), Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Elektra), and above all, Jordi Savall and the Concert des Nations (Astree).
The main draw that makes this set a must have is A Musical Offering. In this event, Menuhin plays as well as directs members of the BFO. His violin bowing is still a bit heavy on the vibrato for my tastes, but the artistry (evident in the phrasing, breath, and tone) is absolutely unmistakable. The performers play with an extremely compelling ensemble feel, all the while crucially maintaining the independent voices that share in these complex compositional masterpieces.
The work is multi-sectioned like any of the Orchestral Suites, but in this case, all of the sections share just one theme in C minor, famously supplied by Frederick II, the King of Prussia. In this sense, A Musical Offering shares a stylistic kinship in Bach's late career with The Goldberg Variations for harpsichord, Canonic Variations on Von Himmel Hoch for organ, and The Art of Fugue for (unstipulated) keyboard. The codification of fugue and canon techniques occupied Bach for his final decade until his death in 1750. A Musical Offering is his penultimate statement on the form, preparing us for the even more concentrated and complex apotheosis of the processes in The Art of Fugue.
The story behind A Musical Offering, one of the most dramatic in Bach's career, centers on Frederick's request in 1747 that Bach improvise a six-part fugue on his theme. Bach had never attempted such a feat; he took a rain check, as it were, and delivered the goods two months later, not only with the requested Ricercare a 6 (another name for a fugue), but with 10 canons, a Trio Sonata and another Ricercare for three voices, all sprung from the Royal Theme. The prevailing mood of the set is rather melancholic, or at least poignant and serious. The restriction to minor modality and the austere theme more or less assure this; nevertheless, Bach goes to astonishing lengths to invent dazzling, even occasionally cheerful compositions of the highest order of intellectual rigor and integrity.
Menuhin and his fellow artists ride the wave of variety embedded within the music's labyrinthine constructs, bringing alive that dynamism and its curious mix of introspection and extroversion with performances of virtuosity, depth and feeling. From the double-voiced canons to the stunning 6-part ricercare that brings the work to its phenomenal climax, they keep the pulse steady and yet have room to interject the subtlest of rhythmic inflections to avoid a plodding feel. It is fairly typical to perform this set with some form of arrangement, assigning different instruments to various voices. The arrangement here is beautiful and faithful, enriching the clarity of the lines. This is ingenious music that stimulates thought and feeling at once, something that will never grow tiresome or boring no matter how many times you visit its one theme and awe-inspiring cornucopia of variations.
If you are accustomed chiefly to the 'fashionable' Bach of the Brandenburg Concerti and Orchestral Suites, then you may be shocked and pleasantly surprised by the 'unfashionable' Bach who always has a thousand brilliant compositional tricks up his sleeves and, as he proved to the Prussian King, is delighted to show them off.