The Music of Old Bach’s Most Talented Son Shines

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★

Fathers and Sons’ was the subtext for this entertaining programme. With first and second violins – antiphonally divided left and right – violas and wind players all standing, the orchestra’s clarity and precision were emphasized. How refreshing to be able to hear and see them, under director and first violin Kati Debretzeni, swiftly shift musical themes and motifs around. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the most interesting of J.S. Bach’s composing progeny and was part of the movement from the Baroque to Classical styles. His massive catalogue of keyboard works include amazingly imaginative sonatas and fantasies which anticipate, and probably influenced, Beethoven.

His modest Symphony in F major is more conventional but even here in the central Larghetto we feel the anticipatory breeze of the Romantic movement with its sombre minor key keening sound, before the OAE quickly restored decorum with a bright and breezy presto conclusion. The Cello Concerto in A major follows a similar pattern and this splendidly vigorous and virtuosic performance by Jean-Guihen Queyras made me wonder why we don’t hear it more often – it’s not as if the cello concerto repertory is that huge. The sprightly Allegro includes a concise and entertaining cadenza while the jolly, hectic finale – illuminated by Queyras’s smile and quizzically raised eyebrow – was great fun. The central Largo though is the work’s emotional heart: all strings except the soloist are muted and he muses in music both dark, stark and slightly eerie.

While CPE Bach was a musical explorer, his younger sibling Johann Christian was a worldly “give the audience what they want” man, as his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Cello in B flat major shows. Elegantly and energetically played by Debretzeni and principal cellist Luise Buchberger, it was a pleasing but inconsequential piece. Bach befriended the wunderkind Mozart when the latter visited Bach’s base in London and the two remained friends. Mozart’s Symphony No 34 was composed just before he departed from Salzburg for Munich, to prepare for the premiere of his opera ‘Idomeneo’, and is an important step on the road to Vienna, marriage and independence from his father Leopold. It’s a typical bright and festive C major work ringing with the OAE’s brazen natural trumpets and whacked hard-stick timpani. The finale is the last of his fast-and-furious jigs, all bounce and puppyish energy, with wild and witty music for the woody, pastoral oboes.

Norman Stinchcombe

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