Monday 26 January 2015

Aspect Foundation - Berlin

Mahan Esfahani
Mahan Esfahani
CPE Bach, Frantisek Benda, Quantz, Frederick the Great, JS Bach; Madeleine Easton, Rachel Brown, Richard Boothby, Mahan Esfahani; The Aspect Foundation at the Twentieth Century Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

The nature of Enlightenment and some rare repertoire in an intriguing evening

The Aspect Foundation launched its 2015 season with a evening exploring Berlin and the Age of the Enlightenment at the Twentieth Century Theatre in Notting Hill. Norman Lebrecht introduced the subject and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani played music from Frederick the Great's court by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Frantisek Benda, Johann Joachim Quantz, Frederick II (The Great) of Prussia, Johann Sebastian Bach, with Madeleine Easton (violin), Rachel Brown (flute), Richard Boothby (viola da gamba).

Madeleine Easton - photo Steven Godbee
Madeleine Easton
photo Steven Godbee
The idea behind Aspect Foundation evenings is to introduce a musical topic, and provide an intriguing introduction and spark lively debate. Not quite a lecture recital, the audience should come away intrigued and keen to learn more. As well as Lebrecht's introduction, Mahan Esfahani talked about the individual pieces and at the opening of the second half, Lebrecht and Esfahani had a discussion about the nature of Enlightenment.

The end result of the introduction and the discussions was fascinating, as we learned that the Enlightenment in Berlin during the 18th century was nothing like that which we thought. Frederick the Great's father sacked all the musicians, and when Frederick ascended the Prussian throne he radically recreated the musical establishment, but Lebrecht's convincing argument was that you cannot create cultured Enlightenment by an act of will and that Berlin never took its status as a cultural city. But the discussion also raised other interesting aspects, as Lebrecht brought up the topic of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (Felix Mendelssohn's grandfather), who was patronised by Frederick the Great despite Jews not being allowed in Berlin. It put a whole new complexion on what Enlightenment might mean.

Rachel Brown - © Chris Christodoulou
Rachel Brown
© Chris Christodoulou
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788) was harpsichordist at Frederick's court for many years, but never achieved promotion perhaps because, as the story goes, CPE Bach was audibly disapproving of Frederick's flute playing. Richard Boothby and Mahan Esfahani played CPE Bach's Sonata in D major for viola da gamba and harpsichord, Wq 137, a work which showed CPE Bach's familiar combination of lively imagination and adherence to tradition. The opening Adagio was discreetly lyrical, with the viola da gamba very much to the fore. With a lovely singing tone, the viola da gamba brought a lovely veiled tone quality to the piece. The middle Allegro was a lively scurrying movement, with some furious string crossing from the viola de gamba as well as the solo line going very high. The final Arioso was a gentler and lyrical, though the solo lines was still quite busy and there were some fascinating passages where the unaccompanied viola da gamba's double was in dialogue with the harpsichord.

Mahan Esfahani explained that they were using photocopies of original 18th century parts, which were of admirable clarity and helped bring the performers closer to the original. Esfahani also commented that the harpsichord parts of Frantisek Benda's violin sonatas are relatively straightforward, but that it was rare that he gets to play 'doo-wop'.

Richard Boothby
Richard Boothby
Frantisek Benda (1709 - 1786) was a violinist at Frederick's court for over 50 years. He was famous for his violin compositions. Madeleine Easton and Mahan Esfahani played his Sonata XI in D major for violin and basso continuo. Benda's manuscript includes two versions of the violin solo, with the second more elaborate version being recommended for the repeats of each section. When Easton started, the violin part seemed so elaborate that it was difficult to believe that it could be further ornamented but it was! The opening Allegro was lyrical, but busy, and Easton played with a lovely singing line. The middle Adagio was graceful with something of a Scotch snap to the rhythm. The final Presto was a lively with running triplets and some fabulous playing from Easton.

The composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697 - 1773) was the flute tutor to Frederick the Great, a role he played from 1728. Mahani Esfahani told the story of the most fearsome animal in Europe, which was Mrs Quantz's dog because Mrs Quantz was frightened of the dog, Mr Quantz was frightened of Mrs Quantz and Frederick the Great was frightened of Quantz! When Frederick played his compositions, Quantz used to cough when he heard solecisms.

Quantz's Trio Sonata in A minor, QV 2:Anh.34 was performed by Rachel Brown (flute), Madeleine Easton (violin), Richard Boothby (viola da gamba) and Mahani Esfahani (harpsichord). The opening Adagio was a lyrical dialogue between flute and violin as they swapped graceful phrases. The Presto was an appealing movement, with a busy-ness caused by a profusion of repeated notes. A four-movement work, the next movement was Larghetto, a graceful triple time movement . The finale, Allegro assai, was a perky movement with lots of phrase swapping between flute and violin.

Much of Quantz's music is still unavailable, and only visible by visiting the archives in Berlin. Flautist, Rachel Brown got frustrated at their unavailability that she has published some herself. Two volumes of Quantz's flute sonatas are available from Rachel Brown's website.

There was much discussion about whether Frederick the Great composed the music which is ascribed to him. Mahan Esfahani commented that there were sufficient signs of bad writing in the music to make it clear that Frederick had written it. There are hundreds of surviving flute sonatas by Frederick the Great, so you began to wonder whether they were worth listening to.

Rachel Brown, Richard Boothby and Mahan Esfahani performed Frederick's Sonata in C major for flute and basso continuo, SpiF 40. The opening Grave e sostenuto was graceful, with a lovely lilt. The middle Allegro was fluent, with a toe tapping tune, and the final Presto was galant with a nice fluidity.

The final work in the concert moved away from Frederick's Enlightenment with Johann Sebastian Bach's response to Frederick's challenge to the composer, on a visit to the court, to improvise a six part fugue on a complex theme which Frederick gave him. The result was the Musical Offering, which Bach sent to Frederick in a presentation manuscript. We heard the Trio Sonata in C minor from the Musical Offering BWV 1079, played by Rachel Brown (flute), Madeleine Easton (violin), Richard Boothby (viola da gamba) and Mahani Esfahani (harpsichord). The opening Largo introduced us to Bach's rather sophisticated sound world, with a complex interweaving of flute and violin, to which the viola da gamba joined as well.  The apparently carefree Allegro, had a more troubled undertow with an interestingly chromatic viola da gamba part (far more complex than anything we had heard all evening). The Andante had a spare texture with a lot of harmonic tension, and a good sense of dialogue between all the instruments. The fugal Allegro was  a fitting finale, with the viola da gamba's line being included in the fugal tension and all having cascades of notes. There was a lovely chamber quality to the whole performance, with a real feel of listening between the performers, as well as a sense of them enjoying Bach's sophisticated puzzles in his music.

This was a substantial and intriguing evening, which made us evaluate not just the reputation of Frederick the Great as a composer, but also to consider the concept of Enlightenment, along with some superb performances of an appealing range of music.

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