Bach Fest “From Bach to Beethoven”

By Scott MacClelland

THE BIGGEST surprise to me on Friday’s Bach Festival Main Concert was György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, a four-movement piece of Hungarian/Romanian folklore à la Bartók and Kodály. I know Ligeti much better for his satiric, often avant garde and sonically challenging pieces, especially his opera Le Grand Macabre which makes fun of death, sex and politics. By comparison, this ‘Transylvanian’ concerto of 1951 is easy listening, if no less original, yet full of special effects, including plenty of cameo solos.

Its bucolic first movement opened with strings, then added horns and winds, to be followed in the succeeding movement by a vigorous country dance that contains another pastoral episode including valveless horns and their ‘out of tune’ overtones. A cor anglais pit the equal-tempered scale against the natural one as string tremolos built tension until a clarinet entered the fray and the music took a rhapsodic turn reminiscent of Enesco. The third movement began with a trumpet signal and a spooky fabric of strings and winds. Another folk dance then took charge. Paprika-flavored string solos followed with more ghostly effects on the orchestral strings. Some percussion thumps added exclamation points, and soon we were back in the rhapsodic world of Enesco. Several triumphant gestures gave way to the natural horns alone, then a final punctuation. (According to Allen Whear’s program note, an abortive 1951 reading delayed the official premiere, in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, until 1971.)

Paul Goodwin’s orchestra opened the program with JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, which famously uses natural horns. Only in this case valved horns became the ‘natural’ choice because of Benjamin Wallfisch’s Margrave Interludes, a festival commission, which needed them. The first three movements of the Bach were appended with Wallfisch’s short mood pieces that drew their ideas from the movements that preceded them. Goodwin described Wallfisch as a film composer and that was easy to recognize.

Natural horns and trumpNatural horn & crooksets returned for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony of 1813, the year before Heinrich Stölzel, a German hornist, created the first piston valve, with several different varieties by several inventors, among them Adolphe Sax, to follow. (Before 1814, horn players could exchange replaceable crooks—see photo—to approximate what the valve made so much easier.) Goodwin conducted an animated 40-minute reading of this rhythmically charged symphony that included a welcome full range of dynamic (loudness) contrasts.

I admit that I’ve heard this piece too many times over too many years. I hope some conductor and orchestra will give me a shocking new experience of it, a definite possibility since David Zinman’s intensely driven recording with the Zurich Tonhalle of 1997. Meanwhile the orchestra gave it a fine account and the audience loved it.