Brecon Baroque Festival: ‘A Musical Offering’ with Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque

Theatr Brecheiniog, Brecon, October 25 2014

Brecon Baroque
Directed by Rachel Podger

JS Bach: (selection from) The Musical Offering
JS Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in Bb major BWV 1051
WF Bach: Adagio and Fugue F.65
JS Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV 1048


Of composers, the nickname ‘Papa’ is most popularly associated with Haydn; a beloved father figure to other musicians during his lifetime as well as epoch-forming in his development of the symphony and the string quartet. But JS Bach before him could also lay claim to that moniker – quite literally, as he fathered an entire dynasty of composers and musicians. The far-reaching impact of the ‘House of Bach’ upon German baroque music and beyond has yet to be fully appreciated by wider audiences. But this year’s Brecon Baroque Festival – the ninth since its establishment in 2007 by international violinist extraordinaire and Brecon local, Rachel Podger – did its vigorous best to spark enthusiasm in that direction, taking its cue from the birth tercentenary of the most significant and innovative of JS’ sons: Carl Phillip Emmanuel (1714-1788).

Rachel Podger Photo Courtesy of Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger. Photo Courtesy of Jonas Sacks

In his later years, the increasingly unfashionable JS had come to be known – albeit with respect – as ‘Old Sebastian’ or ‘Old Bach’. And it was in that spirit of appreciation for a venerable but slightly fusty older figure that CPE’s then employer, Frederick the Great, invited his court musician’s father to attend him at Potsdam in 1747. The occasion has become the stuff of legend, for it led to the composition, three years before his death, of one of JS Bach’s most extraordinary feats of contrapuntal genius, the Musikalisches Opfer or ‘Musical Offering’. And it was this high baroque pinnacle of intellectual delight that Podger’s ensemble, Brecon Baroque, performed with impressive clarity and poise in the first half of their concert at Theatr Brecheiniog on October 25.

The Musical Offering is actually a collection of pieces. Here we heard artfully persuasive renditions of the most ‘chunky’, as Podger put it, in various captivating instrumental combinations, comprising five of the ten canons, together with the two ricercars and the four-movement trio sonata. The latter piece is scored for flute – the instrument Frederick played – violin and basso continuo (cello and harpsichord), but Bach gave the rest no fixed instrumentation, nor any specific order for performance, and the story of the work’s genesis is fascinating:

Frederick had invited JS primarily in order to test the composer’s mastery of improvisation; a skill all musicians were expected to possess, but for which Bach was famous. The monarch was determined to show off his collection of new (and new-fangled) Gottfried Silbermann fortepianos, and challenged Bach to create a three-part fugue on a particularly cussed theme he had provided, the so-called King’s Theme. When Bach duly obliged, Frederick upped the ante to six parts; a test in quite another league, and which would surely have landed any other composer but Bach senior in ‘another fine mess’. However, JS calmly took the challenge away to work on, and answered it emphatically with his astonishing 6-part Ricercar, which closed the half here in Brecon in a sonically rich combination of flute, oboe and viola, with viola da gamba joining cello and harpsichord.*

Clearly (and despite a brief miscommunication between Podger and cellist at one point), the musicians were comfortably at home with Bach’s dense polyphony, and they navigated it with aplomb for their appreciative audience. My only wish was to have heard the Offering in its entirety, ideally in an acoustic more beguiling for this repertoire (oh for a late night, candle-lit performance in Brecon Cathedral!). However, judging by the cheers which greeted the bouncier, more crowd-pleasing works in the programme, I suspect that Podger – clearly a generous and inspirational leader – has a keen sense for gauging  her Brecon audience.

The second half was flanked by breezy performances of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 6 and 3 – less demanding of listener concentration, and better suited to Brecheiniog’s dryer sound in their ebullient, bright and dancy swish. For me, however, the middle item was not only more rare, but more alluringly played: the Adagio and Fugue F.65, by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann; arguably the most underachieving of his talented offspring. The work forms part of a sometime Symphony in D, and it was performed as if with half an eye on the sadness of such a gifted composer experiencing so troubled a life and impoverished a death as did WF Bach. The Adagio had a deeply felt, elegiac quality, whilst the mischievous Fugue which followed brimmed with a syncopated wit and invention pre-echoing no less a figure than Mozart.**

* Wholly beside the point, but I can’t resist drawing attention to Anton Webern’s exquisite Klangfarbenmelodie orchestration of the 6-part Ricercar, published 1935 [Bach Fuge (Ricercata, no. 2 a 6 voci) aus dem Musikalischen Opfer für Orchester gesetzt]. Highly recommended if you don’t know it.

** As it happens, Mozart transcribed another of WF Bach’s fugues – that in F minor from the Eight Fugues for harpsichord, F.31 – to form the 6th and final fugue to his Preludes and Fugues for String Trio, K. 404a.