‘Some people say Vivaldi wrote the same concerto five hundred times,’ said Steven Devine before starting his harpsichord recital in the Purcell Room. ‘And if that’s the case, you’re in for a pretty boring morning.’
We weren’t, of course, for he was going to play three of Bach’s fascinating transcriptions of Vivaldi violin concertos, followed by Bach’s own triumphant synthesis of the genre in the form of his Italian Concerto. Why did Bach make these transcriptions? For teaching material, or purely as an experiment? But as Devine ably demonstrated, each of the works in question gained an entirely new character thanks to Bach’s inspired use of two manuals – plus a variety of stops - to permit the illusion of a soloist balanced by an orchestra evoked through rapidly repeated chords. The busy outer movements retained something of Vivaldi, but the inner movements were Bach in his most plangently lyrical form. After showing what a virtuoso he is, Devine gave as an encore the Aria to the Goldberg Variations, modestly omitting to mention that he had recently released a fine recording of that great work on the Chandos label.
This concert was one of many pleasures in the Southbank’s annual Bach Weekend, presided over by flautist Martin Feinstein and his ensemble. This year’s theme was Bach’s virtuosity, of which the opening two concerts presented five classic examples. The ensemble have a splendid vigour and clarity of sound, but at times they undersold the music’s beauty, most notably in the Andante of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto, where rapt exaltation was reduced to workaday matter-of-factness. But with the London Bach Singers they rose fully to the challenge of the Chorale Cantatas which were the weekend’s finale. I don’t go a bundle on soprano Faye Newton’s vibrato-free style – in which relentless accuracy expunges all expressiveness - but tenor Nicholas Hurndall Smith, countertenor William Purefoy, and bass Ben Davies more than made up for that, as did Katharina Spreckelsen’s brilliant work on the oboe, Robin Bigwood’s on the organ, and Catherine Manson’s on the violin.
With free sherry in the intervals, this civilised and well-attended weekend was marred only by the chaos of the programme booklets, with one incorrectly dated, and on another occasion the wrong one being handed out.