Friday, 23 June 2017

Bach - The Four Orchestra Suites

Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of
the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach orchestral suites; The King's Consort, Robert King; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach's orchestral suites in engaging performances from the large-scale to the intimate

On one of the hottest ever days in London, Robert King and the King's Consort still drew a good audience for their programme of Bach's orchestral suites at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 21 June 2017. There was a very full platform too, with the ensemble fielding a total of 24 performers on the crowded Wigmore Hall stage. They did not perform the suites in numerical order, instead King started and finished with suites with trumpets Ouverture 4 in D BWV 1069 first and Ouverture 3 in D BWV 1068 last. Ouverture 1 in C, BWV 1066 came second with Ouverture 2 in B minor after the interval, played just one to a part with Rachel Brown giving the solo flute.

Bach's four orchestral suites are his only surviving examples of large-scale orchestral pieces, though almost certainly he wrote more orchestral suites which have been lost. Traces these lost ones still survive because of Bach's habit of re-using material, and this applies to the four existing suites where a few movements crop up in other places. Chronology is still somewhat vague, though some almost certainly have their origins in music which Bach wrote at the court in Cöthen, but their present form owes a lot to Bach's taking over the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in 1729, and thus having a good orchestral ensemble with which to perform his music. In form, the suites are all quite similar; each starts with a large-scale French-overture type movement (slow, fast, slow) followed by a suite of dance movements, often in pairs.

Ouverture 4 in D BWV 1069 begins with a grand movement where Bach makes much use of all his forces, three trumpets, two oboes, bassoon and strings. The principal effect of the movement is that of ebb and flow, as the trumpets tended to dominate when playing and Bach's string parts have a great deal of dynamic movement in them. We had to accept that the trumpets were very present, so the detail in the strings was covered and I have to presume this was an effect Bach intended. When things got quieter we could appreciate the delicate detail which King drew from his players. The sequence of shorter dance movements were all highly characterful, with something of a robust country dance about the 'Bourees' and concluding with a vivid 'Rejouissance'.

With Ouverture 1 in C, BWV 1066, the trumpets, timpani and one of the oboists retired from the stage, giving the piece a more intimate yet still orchestral feel. For all the stateliness of the opening movement, King drew a good sense of forward movement from the ensemble, and the perky wind trio was fabulous. King brought out the dance element in the subsequent movements, so we had a danceable 'Courante', toe-tapping 'Gavottes' and ended with a pair of 'Passepied' which went with a lively lilt, plus a brilliant oboe solo in the second one.

After the interval was a complete change of style. Ouverture 2 in B minor is the most recent and most modern in style of the suites, and King feels that the writing is more chamber in style. So we had single strings (Alida Schat, Michael Gurevich, Jane Rogers, Joseph Crouch, Christine Sticher), directed from the flute by Rachel Brown with Robert King at the harpsichord. The opening movement was still grand, but with an intimacy too and Rachel Brown's flute floated gracefully over the top. Gracefulness was a major factor in the subsequent movements, though the 'Rondeau' also had a lovely sense of multiple intertwining parts. The perky 'Bourees' were followed by the very striking 'Polonaise & double' where the striking Polish-style tune on the flute, became the cello bass line in the second. The final 'Badinerie' managed to combine elegance with a real toe-tapping feel. An enchanting performance, a real sense of communal chamber music.

The final piece, Ouverture 3 in D BWV 1068 returned us to large scale orchestral writing. Balance between trumpets and strings worked rather better in the grand opening movement, with a wonderfully vital fugue in the middle section. This was followed by a highly characterful sequence of dance movements, with liveliness to the fore though there was a nice calmness to the violins in the 'Air', and we finished with a 'Gigue' which went with a real bouncy swing.

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