The English Concert at Wigmore Hall

Les Caractères de la danse
Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, Op.3/8
Oboe Concerto in D minor
Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV1060 [reconstructed Wilfred Fischer]
Orchestral Suite in C, BWV1066

Alida Schat & Walter Reiter (violins)

The English Concert
Alfredo Bernardini (oboe)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 22 April, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Even a genius must get his inspiration from somewhere, and J. S. Bach was no exception. It is well-known that he was fired-up by the latest concertos from Italy and in-vogue dances from France, and this programme by The English Concert nicely juxtaposed those models with Bach’s own take on them.

The ensemble was directed by its principal oboist, Alfredo Bernardini, who prefaced the evening by saying how determined they were that the concert should go ahead, despite recent flight disruption: many members had undergone near-baroque-style travel experiences, and some “excellent musicians” who couldn’t get to the UK had had to be replaced by “other excellent musicians” who couldn’t leave it.

The packed Wigmore Hall audience was grateful that they had made the effort; the vibrant performances made an interesting evening’s music come alive engagingly. Things got off to a lively start with imaginative Frenchman Jean-Féry Rebel’s dance suite, Les Caractères de la danse, written for ballerina sensation Françoise Prévost who premiered it in Paris in 1715. The players’ bright, airy and crisp manner was ideally suited to Rebel’s breathless changes of styles and moods: around a dozen contrasting movements packed into less than ten minutes, including a sweetly pastoral oboe solo and a ferociously fast finale.

The most important influence on Bach during his early Weimar years was the Italian concerto style epitomised by Antonio Vivaldi. Bach made numerous arrangements for solo keyboard of Vivaldi’s concertos, including the dazzling A minor for two violins (the third of the L’Estro Armonico set). If Bach ever heard a performance displaying even half the technical mastery and excitement of The English Concert, no wonder it made such an impression on him. Leader Alida Schat and principal second Walter Reiter dazzled in the solo spots, duetting with harmonious unanimity in the beguiling slow movement. The rapid-fire outer movements bristled with Mediterranean flair.

An almost exact contemporary of Bach, Alessandro Marcello was another big influence. Bernardini took the limelight with stylish aplomb in the D minor Oboe Concerto, especially sensitive in its central Adagio – a cantabile solo set against plangent string droplets (which Bach had to ornament excessively in his harpsichord arrangement).

The second half of the concert showed us how Bach took these influences on board with two works which most conspicuously display his debts. The Concerto in C minor for oboe and violin is in fact only conjecture (albeit very convincing conjecture) of how Bach may have originally scored the work more well-known in his arrangement for two harpsichords. Bernardini and Schat made as strong a case as could be wished for, mellifluous oboe lines complemented by an idiomatic violin role. The second movement was clearly modelled on Marcello’s, but Bach additionally imparts a gentle lilt and inexorable momentum. The finale was full of drama.

Each section of the C major Orchestral Suite was imbued with well-sprung rhythms and distinctive character, the violins’ fanfare-like motif in the third movement resounding especially delightfully. Ultimately, however, the second part of the concert was less satisfying than the first, partly because no matter how inventive and entertaining Bach’s inimitable take on French dance – and no matter how dynamically performed – a succession of dances inevitably is less musically interesting than more substantial fare. It is also fair to say that Bach is at his best when he has absorbed and fully integrated foreign elements, rather than consciously imitating them – unquestionably superbly as he does. Nevertheless, The English Concert’s commitment and energy ensured that this was a very enjoyable evening.

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