1999 Festival Reviews

Christie brightens Bach festival

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

Organist James David Christie emphasized the "festive" element in this year's Northwest Bach Festival. Christie performed at First Presbyterian Church Friday, demonstrating the outer limits of what the church's somewhat bland Schantz pipe organ can do.

The program included organ solos by J.S. Bach, his predecessor Dietrich Buxtehude and the son of one of Bach's early employers, Johann Ernst, duke of Saxe-Weimar. Christie also collaborated with harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski in concertos for two keyboards by Bach and by Bach's student Johann Ludwig Krebs.

The organist began with Duke Johann Ernst's Concerto for Strings in G minor, one of several of the royal composer's concertos for strings transcribed for solo organ or harpsichord by Bach. Johann Ernst was a talented child who died at 19. Christie made the best of this short work that's most attractive feature was its flashy, if exhaustingly jittery, finale.

Christie and Wjuniski turned Krebs' Concerto in A minor into a surprising treat. Krebs' job as Bach's student included copying out parts for performances of Bach's music. Krebs' own work confirms the truth of Oscar Levant's observation, "Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism." When writing this concerto, Krebs remembered portions of his teacher's concertos and cantatas and put them to good use.

In Krebs' concerto and Bach's own Concerto in C major, Christie and Wjuniski were perfectly in accord stylistically, if not always wholly synchronized rhythmically. The warmth and color of the organ complemented the "ping" and bite of the harpsichord. Christie adapted his touch to a detached style like the harpsichord, while Wjunski produced an almost organlike songfulness.

Christie's inclusion of Buxtehude's Praeludium in G minor demonstrated where Bach received the inspiration for his toccatas. Like a mischievous schoolboy, Christie could not resist using the organ stop called the Zimbelstern, the sound of tinkling bells, as a sparkling halo to the Praeludium's ending.

The remainder of the recital was all Bach, and Christie showed why Bach was considered the greatest organist of his day - of any day, perhaps. Two deeply poetic chorale preludes, "Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr" and "O Mensch, bewein' dein Sunde gross," were contrasted with the virtuoso brilliance of the Prelude and Fugue in G major (BWV 541) and Bach's best-known organ work, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565).

The printed program alluded to the current dispute among Bach scholars as to whether or not the latter work is actually by Bach. Christie told me that he thinks someone else wrote this famous piece. But his playing told a different story. Christie made this brash, festive Toccata and Fugue seize you by the ear and not let go until the very end - just like Bach.

All content © 1999 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Pianist's performance a joyful occasion

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

Fifty years ago, harpsichordists began to take back Bach's keyboard music from pianists who thought it was theirs for keeps. Pianist Veronica Jochum showed Tuesday what pleasures pianists and audiences have been missing.

Jochum's recital at The Met, "The Piano Inspired by Bach," will be remembered as one of this Bach Festival's most beautiful events.

In a world filled with fine pianists, Jochum is something special. She one of those rare artists who allows you to forget about the instrument and provides the listener with direct access to what was in the composer's mind. Seldom can one hear such a warm, singing tone backed with such deeply intellectual musical understanding.

Jochum began with some of J.S. Bach's simplest music and ended with one of his towering masterpieces. In between there were Johannes Brahms's serene chorale prelude and a walk on the wild side of Bach's inspiration with a movement from Gaunter Schuller's Sonata-Fantasia.

The "Six Little Preludes for Beginners" and "Two-Part Inventions" make up every piano student's introduction to Bach. In her eloquent spoken remarks, Jochum talked about the origins of the pieces and how they compared with Bach's larger works. Under her hands, Bach's melodies chased and sported with each other, but they were always singing whether calm or racing.

The same was true of two preludes and fugues from the second book of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" and in the mighty "Italian Concerto"' which ended Jochum's recital.

Brahms always looked to Bach for inspiration, even as he lay dying. Jochum chose four chorale preludes originally for organ, written at the very end of Brahms's life and later transcribed for piano by the great Italian virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni. Organists do not play these works often. Brahms thought too much like a pianist to make it easy for organists to bring out the melodies he conceals in the inner voices.

Busoni solved that problem brilliantly and Jochum's performance brought a kind of passionate serenity to Brahms's complex textures.

Speaking of complex, Gunther Schuller turned Bach's musical motto - B-A-C-H in German music terminology, B flat-A-C-B natural in ours - every which way in the first movement of his Sonata-Fantasia. The sounds of the work alternated crashing bells and ominously scurrying passages. The difference from Schuller to Bach was the difference between the painter Francis Bacon and Rembrant.

Jochum played the movement twice, the second time a bit less headlong than the first. Schuller's sonorities reminded me of Scriabin's piano writing - sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying - but sounds that stay with you long after the last note dies.

Jochum followed her exhuberant performance of Bach's "Italian Concerto" with three encores, all in the key of F major - "Bach's most joyous key," Jochum said. Joy was the appropriate word for the occasion.

All content © 1999 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.


Bach Festival closes on a lilting note

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

The 21st Northwest Bach Festival came to a glorious close Sunday afternoon at First Presbyterian Church. The program included two masterfully performed church cantatas and two delightful concertos - one by J.S. Bach, and the other by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Gunther Schuller, the afternoon's conductor and artistic director of the festival, always seems to work miracles with any music, from ragtime to the most complex modern scores. But Schuller clearly loves Bach's music most deeply of all, and he brings the lilt of the dance and a sprightly singing quality to his performances of Bach. Schuller knows the older, romantic style of Bach performance and the more recent efforts to return to "historically accurate" Bach style. His Bach performances accomplish what, to my ears at least, is a wonderfully convincing fusion of the two -- the romantics' heartfelt fervor without its heaviness, and moderns' transparency and lightness without choppiness.

The dancing quality was very apparent from the first moments in the Concerto in F minor, which began Sunday's concert. Harpsichord soloist Ilton Wjuniski proved he could make the harpsichord dance and sing. He turned the second-movement largo into an ardent serenade.

After intermission, Wjuniski and pianist Linda Siverts captured the wit and sweetness of C.P.E. Bach's Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord despite a moment of confusion in the first movement caused by a delayed harpsichord entrance.

The two cantatas performed Sunday were comparative rarities -- Cantata No. 148, "Bringt dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens," and Cantata No. 149, "Man singet mit Freuden von Sieg." The Bach Chorus, trained by Tamara Schupman, did fine work, singing with real Bachian spirit. All the soloists -- soprano Darnell Preston, alto JoAnne Bouma, tenor Fritz Robertson and bass Robert Honeysucker -- were quite impressive.

Just to cite examples for Cantata No. 149: I was struck by the intensity of Bouma's "Mund und Herz steht mir offen" with its colorful accompaniment of oboes and bassoon and by hers and Robertson's duet, "Seid wachsam, ihr heiliger Wachter" with Barbara Novak's jaunty bassoon obbligato.

Honeysucker was able to bring weight to "Kraft und Starke" without ever becoming ponderous. And Preston provided an appropriate angelic brightness to "Gottes Engel weichen nie."

What Bach does with the union of words and music is astounding. Unfortunately the English translations of cantata texts printed in the program were not poetic enough to be readable nor literal enough to be helpful. Worse yet, the program gave a completely different set of words for the final chorale of Cantata 148 than those sung.

Sunday's performance was the last of four concerts that made up the most visible part of the Bach Festival iceberg. There were more than 30 events connected with the festival. The festival's visiting artists and their local cohorts visited public schools and presented lectures, master classes, demonstrations, and concerts with commentary at Eastern Washington University and here in the city. This is the kind of annual event that truly lives up to the name "festival."

All content © 1999 - Spokesman-Review, The (Spokane, WA) and may not be republished without permission.