Bach Weekend 2009, Purcell Room, London
Beyond the Wall: New Music from China, Barbican, London
The elegant economy of J S Bach makes a Chinese spectacular sound flashy and hollow
Sunday 29 March 2009
Exactly two years ago, the Saskatoon-based author Yann Martel began an unusual literary project. Every fortnight, starting with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he sent a book to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, hoping to "make suggestions to [Harper's] stillness".
Fifty volumes of poetry, fiction, philosophy and essays later, you can enjoy the reading list on Martel's website (www. whatisstephenharperreading.ca). Harper may have been unmoved (only one letter of acknowledgement has been received to date), but Martel's idea remains a subtle corrective to the cult of the new, the loud and the headline-grabbing. Which is why the photograph to the right is not of composer-conductor Tan Dun, or any other performer in the opening concert of Beyond the Wall: New Music from China, but of cellist Alison McGillivray, whose Bach recital appealed to stillness through the medium of dance.
Does that sound paradoxical? It's not. Stillness in this context is not dumb passivity, but uncluttered receptivity to the curve of a phrase, a gesture, a colour. Away from the caffeinated colloquy of the Brandenburg Concertos, much of the music in this year's Bach Weekend 2009 was intimate, private, even domestic, and scored for one or two instruments. Were the cello suites written for dancers? It seems unlikely. Yet McGillivray's delicately swung, sophisticated performance seduced movement from the first exploratory figures of the E-flat Prelude, through the playfully stretched rhythms of the Allemande to the hide-and-seek triplets of the Courante. A slow, cerebral, near-sexy Sarabande (Bach is never entirely sexy) with deliciously lazy French trills made time, but not the tactus, discreetly stand back before the wry Bourrées and athletic Gigue. Similar physicality, seriousness and elegance informed the C major Suite, which was laced with sly grace notes, saucily articulated slurs and long dynamic curves, another pupil-dilating Sarabande, and wild Bohemian drones in the Gigue.
Catherine Manson's reading of the A and E major sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, with Nicholas Parle, aimed at the same vivacity, though it was the dark, measured cadences of the Adagio of the C minor sonata that best suited the duo. In Jonathan Manson's and Matthew Halls's performance of the viola da gamba sonatas – first performed in Leipzig by Bach and C F Abel, the 17-year-old gamba virtuoso and son of the principal cellist in the Cöthen orchestra – the long lines of the Adagio of the G minor sonata were as sorrowful and introspective as any Passion aria. But it was James Johnstone's programme of the two- and three-part Inventions – works written for the practice room, not the public – that gave the clearest view of Bach without his wig. Beautifully austere and free from exiguous interpretive effects, Johnstone's performance smoothed the well-thumbed pages of Bach's teaching manual, allowing us to enjoy the precious stillness of active engagement with each musical cell.
You can't get much further from 18th-century Cöthen than 21st-century China, the subject of the Barbican's new, loud, headline-grabbing Beyond the Wall series. This was an evening of good intentions and gymnastic cadenzas, empty spectacle and armchair tourism. As bombastic as the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and entirely composed of final climaxes, Tang Jianping's earsplitting concerto Sacred Fire saw soloist Wang Bei Bei tickle, bang and batter her marimba to an action-movie accelerant of thundering timpani and belching brass. If this flashy exercise in faster-louder-faster-louder was meant to stun the listener into gawping – the wrong kind of stillness – it succeeded.
Guo Wenjin's Chou Kong Shan: Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra showed some interesting colours in the scoring for harps, horns and E-flat clarinet but was more memorable for the pungent, plangent vibrato of the flute – imagine a poetic goat and you've got it – and the implausible velocity of soloist Tang Jun Qiao's tonguing than for any distinct musical personality. Scrupulously performed by cellist Anssi Karttunen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Tan Dun's diaphanous nine-movement concerto for cello, video and orchestra, The Map (2002), attempts a dialogue between past and present, mountain and city, folk- and art-music. Here too there were odd moments of Hollywood hyperbole (the miaowing glissandi of "Blowing Leaf", the glare and dazzle of "Daliuzi"), and the poignancy of "Feige" (in which we watched a Hunan girl sing one part of an ancient lovers' antiphon for the video camera and listen, smiling, for the unheard response of the cello in the concert hall) was largely extra-musical.
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