Bach: From Kaffee Zimmermann to Carnegie Hall Zimmermannsches Caffeehaus
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Felix Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture, op. 26 – Symphony No.3 in A Minor, “Scottish”, op. 56
Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concertos in D Minor, BWV 1052, & in F Minor, BWV 1056
Beatrice Rana (Piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Bernard Labadie (Principal Conductor)
B. Labadie, B. Rana (© Steve J. Sherman)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) under their new Principal Conductor Bernard Labadie came back to Carnegie Hall with a program featuring an interesting combination of two composers, connected with each other as the younger one of the two is believed to be responsible for bringing back the older one into the collective memory of the 19th century audiences. Indeed the younger composer, Felix Mendelssohn, was much indebted to J.S. Bach and Bach’s influence was distinctly present in the younger genius piano and organ works. This was long before Mendelssohn reintroduced to the Berlin Patrons, as a conductor, Bach’s long forgotten work, the St. Matthew Passion.
So combining compositions of Bach and Mendelssohn hand makes sense and is an example of safe programming. The two works of Mendelssohn bookended the program and the piano concertos were sandwiched in between. Of course I did not mind at all hearing, for the third time in a span of seven month, the spectacular Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. After a very successful recital at Zankel in March, Rana came back as a soloist in June with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 and now with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the two, most popular of Bach’s seven keyboard concertos.
Musicologists seem to agree that none of those works was intended for keyboard but Bach being perhaps one of the foremost recycler in the history of music – he’d probably become a darling of the present day environmentalists! – adapted several of his instrumental concertos for keyboard, quite possibly for his own use at the Kaffee Zimmermann, where his chamber instrumental music was frequently performed. Thus the Concerto in D minor has audible references to violin technique especially in the first movement, but to a certain degree in the middle, melismatic writing of the Adagio. Yet according to historians, the material was originally conceived from the two of his cantatas and eventually became the first major, virtuoso concerto for keyboard, featuring a real cadenza in the final Allegro. This concerto also seemed to be popular at the time when other Bach’s works fell into, at least temporarily, oblivion. And here comes another relation of the two composers featured in the OSL’s program. Turns out that a renowned harpsichord virtuoso, Sara Levy (1761–1854), was not only a frequent performer of J.S. Bach works, as well as works of his sons, but she was also a foremost collector of the scores and manuscripts by the numerous composers of the Baroque and Classical era (including Bach’s sons.)
Around 1813, Sara donated the majority of her enormous collection of manuscript scores and printed sheet music to the Sing-Akademie. It was there, in 1829, that her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy staged his famous performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – the event that sparked the so-called “Bach revival” of the 19th century. Would this have been possible without his aunt having paved the way? So there was yet another link between the two composers, a link of which, I have to admit with a degree of embarrassment, I was not previously aware.
The second of the concertos, one in F minor, is believed to originate also as, now lost, violin concerto, and its middle movement Largo is adapted from yet another cantata, where the melody line accompanied by pizzicatos would be played on oboe.
As keyboard concertos, i.e. to be played most likely on harpsichord, they would be accompanied by a handful of string instruments: here, at Carnegie, we heard a combination of a concert-grand piano and a full compliment of strings, including double basses. From where I was sitting, toward the back of the auditorium, the results were not too encouraging. I have no doubts that the pianist offered a pristine articulation and that the orchestra was sufficiently prepared to keep up with the soloist, yet there was a feeling of haze, lack of clarity and balance problems with the lower strings. The procedure was not helped by the very fast pace in the first movements of each concerto, and absurdly fast tempi in the last movements: faster than I could ever imagine, leading in places to almost a train-wreck and as a result not very convincing. It is inexplicable what possessed the pianist, known for her excellent Bach performances, to allow for such an interpretative misstep.
Things improved quite considerably in both works by Mendelssohn. Though they were composed about a dozen years apart, they shared a similar origin, as both are related to composer’s travel to Scotland and his fascination with Scottish land and history. Long before he was to complete the symphony, already in July of 1829, in a letter to his family in Leipzig he tells them that he found “the beginning of my Scottish Symphony”. So the work was yet to be composed, but the title was already engraved in his mind. If one was to find literary comparisons for the two works of Mendelssohn we heard during the evening at Carnegie Hall, the Overture The Hebrides (1830) could be considered a postcard describing the incredible impression that the Fingal’s Cave made on him, whereas the 40 minutes long symphony, played as requested without interruption between the movements, as a very long and detailed letter describing his trip to Scotland.
The Scottish Symphony received a lively, impassioned, well defined reading with some quite fast paced moments. Maestro Labadie, as always sitting on the conductor’s podium, kept his forces in rein and offered us an engaging performance, with numerous moments of unusual beauty. Orchestra showed its virtuosity in the second movement Vivace non troppo and played with delicacy, charm and gossamer transparency. Whereas the wind section, especially the clarinet solos by John Manasse, were quite impeccable, the trumpets did not have their best day and the questionable intonation and moments of ensemble uncertainty spoiled the otherwise most enjoyable performance. There were also some imbalance problems caused by a relatively small number of strings which in some moments were overpowered by the brass and winds. Perhaps Maestro Labadie should in the future reconsider employing slimmer forces and reduced number of strings.