Bach on the Orchestra/Andrew Litton

Bach, orch. Stokowski
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565
Bach, orch. Henry Wood
Suite No.6 – Prelude; Finale
Tarik O’Regan
Latent Manifest [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Wise Virgins – Suite
Blithe Bells
Bach, arr. Sargent
Orchestral Suite in D, BWV1068 – Air
Alissa Firsova
Bach Allegro [BBC commission: world premiere]
Bach, orch. Bantock
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV645
Bach, orch. Respighi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Andrew Litton. Photograph: Danny TurnerThis was a veritable feast of a programme for those who like their Bach as viewed by others, and his keyboard music to be bedecked in orchestral garb.

Probably one of the most famous of all Bach transcriptions is that by Leopold Stokowski of the (possibly spurious) Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It might have been pertinent to have heard another orchestration – that by Henry Wood, for instance – but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the authoritative direction of Andrew Litton certainly made sure the piece made an impact. Particularly telling were some of the gentler moments, with filigree harps and woodwind creating telling contrast with more ferocious outbursts.

Henry Wood created two Bach ‘orchestral suites’ to add to Bach’s four. Number 6 comprises mostly keyboard pieces. The ‘Prelude’ is a transcription of the one in C sharp from Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the ‘Finale’ an arrangement of the ‘Gigue’ from the Partita in E for solo violin (BWV 1006). Wood devised a delicate texture for the former and a delightful dance quality for the latter – including harmonies that are not at all incongruous. This infectious performance made one regret that the whole ‘suite’ was not played.

Tarik O’Regan describes Latent Manifest as “a ‘transcription’ of intimations found in the first movement (Adagio) of Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata No.3 in C major, BWV 1005”. It is an innocuous enough piece that didn’t seem to ‘go’ anywhere in particular. The scoring is competent – with a little dash of mildly exotic percussion – but the music as a whole was all-too-reminiscent of other contemporary composers. O’Regan cited Steve Reich’s Violin Phase as a point of reference, but for much of the time the string writing sounded identical to John Adams’s Shaker Loops. At least O’Regan’s piece has the virtue of brevity.

The first half of this concert concluded with Walton’s Suite from his ballet The Wise Virgins; transcriptions of Bach choral and solo vocal works. Great devotee though I am of Walton, I have never been convinced that his heart was really in this project. There is an uncharacteristic blandness to some of the scoring which suggests that he was dutifully going through the motions. Suffice it to say, however, that this performance projected the music well, and that contributions from solo instruments and sections (the cellos in particular) were exemplary.

The full title of Blithe Bells is “a ramble on Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’”. With typical eccentricity of scoring, Grainger’s piece, with its impressionistic overtones reminding one of his Debussy transcriptions, made for an effective – and instructive – contrast to Walton’s version which forms the penultimate movement of his Wise Virgins suite.

Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of ‘Air on a G string’, unashamedly romantic in character, with rich string textures and enhanced counter-melodies, was given an expressive performance, as was Granville Bantock’s take on ‘Wachet auf’ which featured some pert little woodwind comments.

Between these was heard Alissa Firsova’s Bach Allegro, a transcription of the final movement of the Sonata in G minor for viola da gamba. This was a ‘fun’ piece in every way, with quixotic twists and turns and scoring of considerable invention and virtuosity. The composer wrote of her use of “Firsovian orchestration”. I heard Shostakovich in transcription mode – and a young composer could not wish for higher praise.

To conclude was Respighi’s opulent orchestration of the great Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. This was given a luxuriant, full-blooded reading and brought to a close a largely rewarding and definitely well-played and interpreted programme.

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