sun 14/08/2022

Steven Isserlis, Academy of Ancient Music, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Steven Isserlis, Academy of Ancient Music, Wigmore Hall

Steven Isserlis, Academy of Ancient Music, Wigmore Hall

JS Bach casts a long shadow over a programme of music by his sons

No self-mutilation or incest, but plenty of daddy issues at the Wigmore Hall last night in a musical glance through the Bach family album. Carefully keeping Johann Sebastian out of the way (presumably lest he show everyone else up and spoil the fun), Richard Egarr guided us through the work of his four composer sons. Spread across Europe from London to Hamburg and Bologna, the differing influences, fashions and character of each becomes quickly evident. Just a shame that – even in his absence – all remain so comprehensively dwarfed by their father.

It was with Johann Christian, the “London” Bach, that we opened. The Concerto in D major for Keyboard reflects not only the Galant style which so influenced the young Mozart, but also the composer’s English home. Egarr’s delicate embellishments hovered with characteristic poise above the wash of strings, his trickling playfulness with ornamentation and rhythm finding a natural home in Bach’s shapely (if rather disposable) lines. There was no escaping paternal influence in the slow movement, a set of variations paying homage to the fashion for Scottish songs. The lovely “Saw ye my father” emerged as a sort of poor man’s Goldberg Aria, vigorously handled with plenty of snap in the Lombardic rhythms and plenty of bleat in the bagpipe-inspired pedal notes.

Just before we subsided into a sugary (Roco)coma, a welcome spate of chromaticism emerged to spice things up, including quite the cheekiest cadential transition into a restatement of the theme imaginable. Egarr’s glee in the material was abundantly clear, and the interplay between him and principal cello Robin Michael made for some welcome drama, particularly in the more fiery exuberance of the closing Allegro.

Joining the AAM for CPE Bach’s Concerto in A major and JCF Bach’s Sonata in G major, Steven Isserlis was on characteristically head-banging, hand-jiving form. Giving “gutsy” a rather more Baroque interpretation, he assaulted his 1730 Stradivarius with a frenzy that might have alarmed any members of Japan’s Nippon Music Foundation (the instrument's owners) had they been present. The results were mixed; tone and pitch disappeared altogether at times, such was the force of the bow into the strings, creating a clattering and scuffling convulsion of sound that threatened to turn Bach into Bartók. Exhilarating for the most part, there were however moments where it would have been nice not to hear the melodies down a long-distance telephone line in a high wind.

academy_ancient_music_3Drawing back for the slow movement, Isserlis reminded us of his way with melodic line. Deliberately eschewing anything as obvious as legato, he spun a wordless plaint from his crackling strings, investing it with such precise interpretation as to allow any listener to paraphrase. An altogether more accomplished work, it seemed unduly harsh to programme these polished dramatics next to the Sonata in G. Simple and good-natured, what charms it offered came largely from the unusual textural balance of two cellos (solo and continuo) and harpsichord, with the dialogue between Isserlis and Michael forging a wonderfully genial and relaxed intimacy.

Amping up the tension, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Concerto in A minor for Keyboard (performed with just four solo strings) was something of a Sturm in a teacup, all diminished harmonies and delayed resolution. Fragmented and curtailed statements were balanced by taut suspension sequences, occasionally releasing into a doubt-ridden soliloquy for the harpsichord.

Making a virtue of process as much as product, the Academy of Ancient Music can always be relied upon to show their working. Musical processes are spelled out clearly for all to hear, with the rasp of gut strings or the blurt of a harpsichord key adding to the unfussy colour and directness of their sound. A similar honesty can be found in their programming; there’s a lack of gimmickry to it that is always reassuring, yet (as in this case) just occasionally fails to convert thesis to thrilling concert-going experience.

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