By Scott MacClelland
THE FRIDAY MAIN concert of the Bach Festival in Carmel did some innovative Mendelssohn in the form of his Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, likely a local premiere, and “Reformation” Symphony, the latter as set up and performed under the composer’s direction at the Leipzig Gewandhaus concert hall (originally a textile exchange.) In comments from the stage, festival music director Paul Goodwin spoke glowingly and in detail about each of the evening’s pieces, invoking the word ‘extraordinary’ fully eleven times. (Someone should get him a thesaurus.)
Like Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is really a programmatic tone poem. Since voyages under sail can’t be prosperous when seas are calm the piece had to kick up plenty of wind, and even a storm, all laid out in twelve well-fashioned minutes. (The work dates from 1828, not 1928 as the program handout indicated.)
Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony was, according the current festival theme, inspired by Sebastian Bach’s ‘chorale’ cantata “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80.) The symphony, composed in 1830, honors the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a principal document of the still-young Protestant reformation in Germany. It memorably quotes the chordal cadence known as the Dresden Amen in the first movement. (Richard Wagner, who had served as a Kapellmeister at Dresden in the 1840s, used it in his Das Liebesverbot, Tannhäuser and Parsifal.) The chorale tune opens and is developed in the final movement. The unusual orchestral configuration produced some spatial delights, with the violin sections opposite one another, the violas standing further back on one side, the cellos and basses dead center, and the winds divided into two opposing choirs.
In the concert’s first half, Goodwin conducted the Bach cantata itself, a strangely avant-garde musical treatment that must have perplexed the congregation who could only wait for the final chorale iteration which they would have joined in singing. I don’t know the particulars of Bach’s original version but he certainly sounds annoyed with somebody in the church consistory or the Leipzig town council, as he often was, and feeling a need to tweak noses. The opening chorale-chorus is bedeviled with ornamentations beyond the pale, cheeky and provocative in the French operatic superficiality favored by Telemann and Frederick the Great, the French-infatuated Prussian monarch. The Festival Chorale gave it a light, bouncing texture. Yet there is no disguising Bach’s irritation. Nor any doubt as to his at-will skill at settling scores through his music. Oh, and by the way, it’s another work of unique genius.
Happily, the solo voices of Mhairi Lawson (pictured), Meg Bragle and Thomas Cooley sounded more comfortable and commanding than in the opening Main concert on the previous Saturday. Did baritone Peter Harvey inspire them? Lawson would then go on to sing the sensuous aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos. The hard part of it is humming the repeat through closed lips.
Finally, Goodwin conducted the witty orchestration by Gustav Holst of Bach’s brief Fugue à la Gigue.
A final thought for the Carmel Bach Festival: either amplify the harpsichord or confine it to lobby concerts and other intimate spaces. In the Sunset Center theater the instrument is virtually inaudible, which makes playing great music on it a guaranteed disappointment. Watching but not hearing a harpsichordist whaling away on stage makes no sense. The fortepiano was well underway in Bach’s lifetime and, while still relatively primitive, is actually audible to those of us who come to hear the music in this theater.