Friday 20 March 2009

Britten Sinfonia/Ibragimova - Bach, Berg, and Kurtág, 19 March 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Bach – Keyboard Concerto no.5 in F minor, BWV 1056
Berg – Lyric Suite
Bach – Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor, BWV 1041*
Bach – Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (extracts: Contrapunctus I, VII, Canon XIV, Contrapunctus V)*, interspersed with:
Kurtág – Signs, Games, and Messages *(extracts: Hommage à J.S.B., Népdalféle, Jelek VI, Panaszos nóta, Hommage à Ránki György, The Carenza Jig)
Bach – Violin Concerto no.2 in E major, BWV 1042*

Maggie Cole (harpsichord)
Alina Ibragimova (violin/director)*
Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (violin/director)

This fascinating programme was entitled ‘Bach Plus’. Three Bach concertos, two for violin and one for harpsichord, were joined by Berg’s Lyric Suite – the three movements arranged for string orchestra, not, as the programme notes implied, the original six for string quartet – and a mix of Bach and Kurtág: movements from the Art of Fugue and Signs, Games, and Messages. I was not entirely convinced by the ordering; to my ears, the second violin concerto sounded a bit too much like winding-down or even reversion, following the concentration of the Bach-Kurtág sequence. Nor could I discern why most of the players stood for the second half, having been seated for the first. But those are minor reservations, especially in a climate in which performances of Bach on modern instruments, save the works for piano solo, have become rare indeed.

Maggie Cole, who would play harpsichord continuo for the two violin concertos, was herself the soloist in BWV 1056. Her performance was unfailingly musical, eschewing the shock ‘effects’ so much in vogue amongst many Baroque performers. Ornamentation was tasteful and discreet, yet nevertheless welcome. Tempi were all well judged, again a welcome change from the exhibitionistic extremes we must often suffer. There was a strong rhythmic profile to the performance, though the music was never unduly driven, even in the final Presto. Strings were one-to-a-part – a quartet plus double bass – which, I suppose, makes sense when the keyboard instrument is a harpsichord rather than a piano. There were nevertheless still occasions when they seemingly had to tone down their contributions; at least, with the exception of the closing arco phrase of the slow movement, they never sounded ‘period’ in timbre. It was in that Largo that I really missed the sustained cantabile of the piano. Cole did what she could; the fault lies with the superseded instrument. By the end, I had had enough, though not more than enough, of its jangling sonority. (Sir Thomas Beecham put it far better than I or indeed anyone else ever could.)

A slightly larger string ensemble ( was assembled for the Berg. I had never heard it performed by chamber forces before. If ultimately, I prefer either a full orchestral string section or the quartet original, the members of the Britten Sinfonia proved able advocates for such a compromise, producing a commendably full tone at climaxes and successfully conveying more than an impression of Berg’s labyrinthine eroticism. I especially liked the way the stomping Ländler-rhythms forced their Mahlerian way into the opening movement. Jacqueline Shave abandoned her violin to conduct the second movement, which, given its complexities, seemed a wise choice, even though she did little other than beat time. The scurrying, insect-like sounds looked forward at times to Ligeti and even Xenakis, but the harmonies and triple-time lilt in the more ‘Romantic’ passages left us in no doubt that the composer was Berg. The last of the three movements Berg arranged attained just the right note of problematic redemption, the various reconciliations Berg attempted remaining fraught, if beguiling. It was here, above all, that I thought a fuller string section would have been of great benefit, but it is testimony to the quality of the performance that my doubts were never more than mere doubts. The quotation from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony registered with heart-rending clarity.

Strings were once again one-to-a-part for the first of Bach’s two violin concertos. A larger ensemble would probably have helped distinguish more clearly between soloist and ensemble but I suspect that the textures of a chamber-performance were desired rather than heard by default. Lightness and flexibility were the order of the day, at least earlier on. When it came to the finale, dance rhythms were aptly to the fore, but the music would have thrived more with greater flexibility; it sounded a little too ‘controlled’ by soloist Alina Ibragimova. There was a slight paradox here, for Ibragimova actually did very little as director. I had the feeling, especially during the slow movement – which could have done with being a little slower – that, conductorless as it was, the ‘orchestra’ would have benefited from a soloist more willing to lead it. Moreover, it was here that I felt the lack of great passion – and vibrato.

Many of those reservations I would also feel in the performance of the second violin concerto, although here I discerned other difficulties too. For instance, whereas the first movement of the A minor concerto had commendably recognised the moderato part of the Allegro moderato tempo indication, that of the E major concerto was simply too fast. Just because one can play something at a faster tempo does not mean that one should. This movement was breathless rather than exciting, a problem compounded by Ibragimova’s Vivaldian approach to the more virtuosic passages. If Bach is a place for fireworks at all, then they should be of a different nature from this. Moreover, her tone, whilst sometimes leavened by freer use of vibrato, remained somewhat pallid. There were a few moments of less than perfect intonation too. The slow movement was lyrical, again in a rather Italianate way, but hints of the operatic aria are not inappropriate here. That said, there are depths that did not begin to be explored on this occasion. (One can listen to Busch, Oistrakh, Zukerman, etc., etc., to appreciate what might have been.) Rather to my surprise, the finale sounded less forced than the first movement. There were, however, once again some dubious solo Vivaldian histrionics to be endured.

Much better were the Bach and Kurtág selections. I was far from enamoured with the vibrato-less tone adopted by the violins in the opening and closing Bach numbers (Contrapuctus I and V) but there was an intriguing echo of the viol consort, which somewhat alleviated my unease. It was only in these two movements that the full ensemble, itself in any case small, was employed. Kurtág’s Hommage à J.S.B. had a nice sense of ‘following on’ from Contrapunctus I. Written for violin, viola, and ’cello, its Webern-like concision made me wonder whether that composer might have been a still more appropriate candidate than Berg for inclusion in this programme. Caroline Dearnley’s ’cello solo movement, Népdalféle followed. In this excellent performance, Bach met Bartók and was yet transmuted into something quite new: slow and gravely beautiful. Bach returned for Contrapunctus VII, from string quartet. The counterpoint was presented rather than interpreted, but there is a case – even if I am not persuaded of it myself – for saying that it needs no more. Certainly the performance’s – and arguably the music’s – abstraction exerted their own fascination. Jelek VI returned us to the formation employed for the first of the Kurtág pieces. Here, however, there was a very real sense of violent outburst. Every note counted, once again recalling Webern. The viola solo of the following Panaszos nóta, performed ably by Clare Finnimore, sounded like a weird refraction of gypsy and traditional song through the instrument’s harmonics. It moved on towards a more conventionally Romantic sound, before turning to a combination of the two. It was haunting, unpredictable, yet with an inevitability all of its own. There was a certain weirdness of Bach’s own to Canon XIV, performed by violin and ’cello, both in terms of its chromaticism and the distance between the two musical lines. A sense of life ensured that it did not sound unduly didactic; indeed, I should have been quite happy to have heard Bach’s astounding canonical writing extended for hours. Mesmerising pizzicato and a real sense of fun characterised the Hommage à Ránki Györgi, followed by a virtuoso violin solo for Ibragimova in The Carenza Jig. It was here, I thought, that she sounded most at home, far more so than in Bach. Contrapuctus V then offered a welcome sense of culmination to a provocative and satisfying sequence.