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Review: Bach – The Mind of a Genius, Bach Akademie Australia


There is nothing quite like Bach on a Sunday. Particularly on a wintry Sunday afternoon, in Chatswood’s vast Our Lady of Dolours Church.

This concert positioned us to reflect on what makes Bach a genius. In that light, it may seem strange that the concert began with his Prelude and Fugue in C major from the first Well-tempered Clavier. Like most pieces in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, it is not the most intricate piece. But it shows how Bach could conjure magic from the simplest material – a series of arpeggiated chords. Neal Peres Da Costa gave an improvised introduction that was based somewhat on that harmonic progression before he delved into the piece proper. There were slight variations in tempo (grounded by the rather percussive bass on Da Costa’s Andrew Garlick harpsichord), good articulation and the overall impression was that of a lute partita.

Enter the strings. In her description to the audience of the inner workings of Bach’s The Musical Offering, Madeleine Easton played the ‘royal theme’ (or il sogetta Real, as Bach had it). It is an unwieldy thing, based as it is on a relentless descending chromaticism that is hard to harmonise in any consistent fashion. But Bach relished the challenge. And so did Bach Akademie Australia.

Mikaela Oberg assumes the role of Frederick the Great, on flute, as the ensemble dives into the Sonata. That Bach could fit the theme within the form of an Italianate trio sonata is a work of genius in itself. In the first movement, Oberg and Easton have pleasingly symmetrical parts, echoing each other in close proximity. So intertwined were those two that at times it seemed the violin had become the flute and the flute the violin.

But it is in the second that the theme is heard clearest. The harmonic progression in the bridges harks back to the opening aria from Bach’s Nur jedem das Seine. Da Costa on harpsichord and Anita Gluyas then announce the theme in unison, in a powerful moment redolent of the cantus firmus in a chorale fantasia. The theme is then given to Easton and then to Oberg. One can glimpse Bach’s self-assured smile. In the fourth movement there is a noticeable change in signature. We are now in dance territory. It is remarkable that Bach could see such variety in such an ambiguous and limited theme. It is the same hallmark of a genius that David Malouf saw in Shakespeare – that ability to see in the finite the infinite; for one give an inch and take an ell.

Da Costa emerges again, solo, for Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The program prepares us for the “Final” 5 variations. Instead, we are given the aria, and variations 1, 13, 26 and 29. That is a good selection. It nicely encapsulates the stylistic variety of the whole set. But it is a shame that not one of the canons was performed, in a concert entitled The Mind of a Genius. In the first aria, Da Costa varies the arpeggiated chord in the A-section, first upward but then downward in the repeat. Da Costa realised the punchy jazziness of the first variation, but the 29th at times seemed too studied for a virtuosic show piece. The highlight was the Quodlibet, which was performed with confidence and vigour. Fittingly, the rendition of the aria da capo was triumphant, and in full registration, as though to announce the closing of a spectacle.

If Oberg assumed the role of Frederick the Great in the Sonata, Easton assumed the role of Bach himself in the famous Violin Concert in A minor. The third movement was the highlight, and in it there was a strong sense of rhythmic continuity throughout the ensemble. Easton’s flawless execution of the unrelenting series of arpeggios, with their persistent Es, was a moment to behold.

Again, the program prepares us for the “Final” 3 contrapunti of Bach’s majestic Art of Fugue. But we are given contrapunti 1, 17 and 18. Each was here arranged for strings. In the first contrapunctus, Rafael Font on violin does not repeat the theme exactly; imperfectly, the theme appears inganno, or deceptively distorted, but in a way that is hardly noticeable. Consistently with that focus on imperfection, it ends with a jarring augmented chord that resolves itself into a tierce de picarde that smiles upon its audience. The highlight of the first was Gluyas’ performance on the cello, with the cello yearning upward in the middle. The fast-paced cello also shone in the seventeenth – a canon performed here by Easton on violin and Gluyas on cello.

The final contrapunctus is even more stunning. The theme is passed down, almost reverentially, from one end of the quartet to the other until the cello then, almost immediately, performs its inversion! What begins as a countersubject appears really to be yet another theme in its own right, and when the winding second theme emerges, it is hard not to think of the equally-winding second theme of Bach’ equally-majestic C-sharp minor fugue from the first Well-Tempered Clavier. The quartet’s performance was so considered and reflective that the audience was left in awe as the final note, performed by Marianne Yeomans on viola, dissipated into thin air. Once again, we see infinite variety in a theme almost hymn-like in simplicity.

Bach’s more melodic aria “Wie zittern und wanken der Sunder Gedanken”, broke the heavy polyphony of this all. Just as the text speaks of “sinners’ thoughts…bring[ing] accusations against each other”, soprano Bonnie de la Hunty and oboist Adam Masters vie against each other in close succession. De la Hunty has a crystal clear voice reminiscent of Emma Kirkby’s. The aria ascends into the higher registers, but not once did de la Hunty shriek, as some sopranos are wont to do. Her performance was so gripping in its perfection that she had the audience in the palm of her hands, as though delivering a sung sermon. It is hoped that she appears more often in the Sydney early music scene.

All this was rounded off nicely by the 6-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering. Again, we can glimpse Bach’s smile as he has Font and Yeomans announce the theme in unison, among a thicket of voices.

This concert exposed the vapidity of those who think that artificial intelligence can generate a Bach composition. There are so many selective choices to be made. Although the inner workings of each piece are perfectly formed, the overall impression is never one of an overstudied work that labours under its own heaviness. The genius of Bach is that it belies itself. Ars est celare artem.

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