Two versions of Bach’s intense musical experiences

Last month, on two consecutive Sunday afternoons at the Union College Memorial Chapel, the solo string players made deep and prolonged journeys in the music of JS Bach. On November 14, violinist Jennifer Koh performed the complete solo sonatas and partitas, and on November 21, Oliver Herbert performed the six suites for solo cello. The concerts were presented by Capital Region Classical. Lasting approximately three hours, each recital proved to be an extraordinary display of courage on the part of the respective artists as well as a test of the listener’s ability to grasp all the details and nuances that unfolded. .

Right out of the door there was a palpable electricity in Koh’s game and the rapid succession of ideas, gestures and articulations gave him plenty to work on. Bach set a standard for achieving the effect of harmony and counterpoint from a single musical line and it was fascinating to watch this unfold, especially in the fugues that accompanied each of the sonatas. The Presto that ended the First Sonata was moving at breakneck speed.

Before starting the second sonata, Koh waited for the hall to calm down and made sure he did so with a rather stern look, much like a teacher who had had enough. It was hardly a restless or unruly audience, but I froze nonetheless, not even wanting to turn a page lest I prevent Koh from his solemn mission. There was a hint of that same expression on her face halfway through the Andante movement, just as she pulled back the dynamic for a few key phrases. She seemed to be telling us, “Now don’t miss this part.”

It was nearly impossible for her mind to wander at one point, but over time it became difficult to stay in the moment with each passing sentence. As the late afternoon light faded and darkness fell outside, listening became a more holistic endeavor, a study of the larger emotional and dynamic terrain.

The massive and famous Chaconne which concludes the Second Partita was delivered with astonishing weight and intensity. From the wooden instrument she held in her tiny hands, Koh transmitted the strength of a Mack truck.

Finally, some major key music arrived with the Third Sonata, but it wasn’t all good news. The fugue resembled a heated debate between implacable interlocutors. “Like a dog with a bone” is the phrase scribbled in my notebook. The marathon ended with something relatively light, the Third Partita, which opens with the brilliant and popular Preludio.

As we walked out of the room there was a shared feeling of having witnessed a rare event. Series director Derek Delaney told me that Koh doesn’t know any other violinist who dares such a feat and that Christian Tetzlaff plays all six works in one day but with a five hour break in the middle. Koh only took one 20 minute intermission.

Bach by Oliver Herbert

Where Koh was all about business, just as the hardware demanded, Herbert seemed to have more room to spread out and explore in the cello suites. Perhaps this observation is simply a reflection of how one reacts to the instruments being played. The cello sings in a more accessible and human scale and I felt prompted to take good, deep breaths during Herbert’s performance. Listening to Koh, I regularly caught my breath.

Herbert, who is only 24, played with easy confidence and an understated personality. At the start of the First Suite during the German, there was a series of wide ascending arpeggios and the top note of each wave had an unexpected almost electronic or even psychedelic color. I only heard that same sonic character once more during the whole concert. I’m not sure what to think of it other than that it was startling and makes me think that Herbert could have made other eccentric choices throughout the set that I just didn’t understand. Another example was the series of fuzzy or smeared bass notes from the Prelude to the Third Suite.

In his cello writing, Bach again evokes the idea of ​​polyphony where none actually exists. Herbert did his part to increase the effect, sometimes giving different styles of articulation to the strands of interwoven lines in the counterpoint. I had a little chuckle at a few bars of sixteenth notes in the Animated Gigue, also in the Third Suite. Something about the suddenly compressed melodic scale and ticklish articulation of Herbert just touched me.

As with the violin recital, tracking the details gradually gave way to observing the big picture. The fourth sequel had a sense of youthful freedom and was touching in the Bourrees. The fifth was heroic and assertive with Herbert applying his bow as if it were a hammer of weight. He also kept straightening his shoulders, lifting his chin and gazing out to the horizon, as if he was at the helm of a ship on a great voyage.

Herbert honored Bach’s intentions as few other cellists do today. For the Fifth Suite, he lowered the height of the top string from A to G, and he performed the Sixth Suite on a five-string instrument. These were Bach’s instructions, but they can be overwhelming for modern musicians.

The Sixth Suite had a very unique sound because the new instrument had gut strings. There was no stick to support it, so Herbert held the instrument in place between his knees. It also had to re-tune after almost every movement. For his salvation, he switched from holding her on bass (known as the frog) a few inches higher for a lighter touch. After only a short while, my ears missed the stability of the modern instrument, and the switch struck me as a squeaky novelty. Maybe Bach approved.


Yet it was another triumphant Bach mini-marathon performed with astonishing virtuosity and admirable endurance. For the record, Herbert took two intermissions and the concert lasted exactly three hours.

“Long Day’s Journey” not really that long

Let’s get something straight. In itself, three hours of music is not a rare challenge for classical audiences. It was the fact that each of these undertakings was performed by a soloist that made them so remarkable. Ask someone who has gone through a full “Ring” cycle and they’ll tell you three hours is a drop in the bucket.

My thoughts on the length of the live performances were further fueled when, between Bach’s Sundays, I attended a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s last masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” , at the Bridge Street Theater in Catskill. . It was a terrific production and the three three-hour acts flew away. Great performers have this effect.

What I don’t understand is why the “Long Day’s Journey” scale is still decried as such a trial. The theater even handed out little stickers at the end of the night that read, “I survived Long Day’s Journey. Are theater people really such weaklings? If they’re looking for a challenge, they should try opera.

New season for chromatic

Troy Chromatics opened its 124th season on Sunday, November 7 with a concert by the Schumann Quartet with piano soloist Jon Nakamatsu at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

It was a quiet afternoon in a dimly lit and almost empty room. The program opened with the darkest Mendelssohn I have ever heard. The first two movements of his Quartet in A minor, op. 13 are marked Adagio. So I don’t blame the musicians for their performance, but they made the wrong choice of repertoire for a historical period when people need to be brave. Either way, the quartet’s final Presto sounded like a battle cry and gave way to a coda also marked Adagio.

The Mendelssohn was written a few months after Beethoven’s death and was followed in this program by Janacek’s Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”, another even more explicit homage to the late master. Less than a week after the Day of the Dead and as autumn set in, it looked morbid and frightening. The Janacek has played its part, with a melancholy and elegiac writing. The Schumann Quartet played with a tender sound, a little soft but undemanding.

Nakamatsu, wearing a mask, opened the second half with an impromptu by Schubert and a song by Schumann transcribed by Liszt. This gave a welcome energetic boost to the debates and things got even better with a polite and radiant review of Schumann’s Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44.

It was the first Chromatics performance in almost two years and the crowd was the smallest I have ever seen for the series. The season was announced very late, but concert attendance across the country is said to be down from past standards. Hopefully the three performances coming up this winter, including two with well-known soloists, will generate better ticket sales and that there will be more and better campaigns to make it happen. The volunteer run Chromatics is expected to be financially secure in the long term, thanks to the large endowment funded by the late Heinrich Medicus. Yet even if the finances are in order, hearings are essential and not guaranteed.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.