2003 Festival Reviews

Bach Festival Opens with Flair

Travis Rivers / Correspondent

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Pianist Veronica Jochum opened the 25th Northwest Bach Festival Friday with a recital that fulfilled the two purposes Bach claimed as the mission of art: the re-creation of the human spirit and praise of the glory of God. While some historical purists view the modern piano as an unacceptable instrument for the performance of Bach's music, Jochum proved otherwise in the intimate setting of the Davenport's Marie Antoinette Room.

From the very opening of Bach's Toccata in E minor, Jochum made the piano sing with the clarity and rich sonority of a fine pipe organ. This work, by turns improvisatory and strict, allowed her to introduce the audience to Bach as he meditated on a handful of simple ideas, elaborating and enriching each idea as naturally as only a genius of his magnitude could.

Some of the most compelling playing of the evening came in a handful of Bach's "simplest" pieces, a selection of six of his Two-Part Inventions, works usually assigned to young students as they begin the study of Bach. How many students, though, could come close to the finely spun thread Jochum created in the A minor Invention or the serious conversation between her two hands in the familiar C major. The group ended with a race to the finish line in the F major Invention young players love to play too fast. Jochum brought it off with flair and secure brilliance.

In a group of selections from "The Well-Tempered Clavier," Jochum ranged through moods from the bliss of the A major Prelude from Book II to the spacious song of the E-flat minor Prelude from Book I of this set. The crown of her recital's first half was the Chromatic Fantasy, a work whose swirling clouds of harmonies sounded as adventurous (and as disturbing) as a painting by Bosch or a storm-torn scene from Shakespeare. I have never heard this work played so movingly. Jochum chose not to end with the fugue which is often coupled with this fantasy - a decision that I heartily endorse. What more could be said after such a spiritual adventure?

The second half of Friday's recital mixed Bach with one of his great 20th-century proponents, the Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni. He spent much of his career playing Bach's music, editing it for a complete survey of all Bach's keyboard music and teaching it to a raft of students. Jochum first played Bach's Three-Part Invention in F minor, a tiny work that packs into two pages some of the touching anguish you find in Bach's Passions. She followed the Invention with Busoni's meditation on its themes in the second of his "Seven Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing." The pianist showed what a remarkably inventive set of pieces this is despite its unwieldy, off-putting title. Busoni's language can be quite close to Bach and then veer away to hints of late Liszt and even Ravel and beyond.

Equally amazing was Jochum's playing of another of Busoni's "Seven Short Pieces," a Bachian chorale prelude on the duet of the Two Men in Armor in from Mozart's "Magic Flute" - an amazing display of ingenuity.

Jochum ended her program with a return to Bach himself in a delightful version of his Partita in B-flat major. This is another work often performed by students, but never with Jochum's subtle range of color and natural sense of rhythm in the dances that make up this work.

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