If the Proms ‘Bach Day’ looked odd on paper, it was even odder in reality, but its centre of gravity was an unusually illuminating performance of the complete Brandenburg Concertos by the English Baroque Soloists directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Modestly presenting himself as primus inter pares, Gardiner sat out some of the concertos and simply allowed his fine-tuned band to do their thing, but the commentary with which he punctuated their performances was spot on.
He likened the hunting horns which play joyful havoc in the first concerto to hooligan gatecrashers, and that’s how they came across, but this was just the prelude to a feast of changing moods, textures, and colours. If lead-violinist Keti Debretzeni was the outright star – infusing the dance movements with crackling energy, delivering a ravishing cadenza in the fourth concerto – Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham made magic with their humble recorders, while Neil Brough was his usual dazzling self in the stratospheric trumpet solos; two oboes plus a bassoon created a wonderful stillness in the first concerto, and the violas in the sixth interlaced with filigree grace.
But then came an organ recital by David Briggs. Why did he play Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor deafeningly? Because, with the Royal Albert Hall’s 10,000-pipe monster, he could. Like a little boy let loose in a Sherman tank, he went on to reduce one of Bach’s infinitely subtle orchestral suites to a parade of lumpen vulgarity. Next time they should block up 9,500 of his pipes, and see what he could do with the rest.
The grand finale was a series of celebrated arrangements of Bach by Stokowski, Henry Wood, Grainger, and Respighi, plus two new BBC commissions. Tarik o’Regan’s ‘Latent Manifest’ was a gracefully-controlled meditation on a single Bach phrase, but its connection with the master was so distant as to be out of sight. And since Alissa Firsova had published a glowing self-review in advance, telling us that her ‘Bach Allegro’ had “a Paganianian virtuosity and a Haydnesque humour, combined with a Firsovian orchestration”, it only remains for me to report that it came across like a composition-student’s contribution to an end-of-term knees-up. Was this the best the Beeb could come up with?