Irish Baroque Orchestra at University Church, St Stephen’s Green, 31 January 2015

The second concert in this winter’s Irish Baroque Orchestra series, ‘Masterworks – Essential Bach’, features music by two sons of the great J.S. Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. We hear pieces composed for aristocratic salons in Berlin and Dresden, the music reflecting changing contexts for performance as artistic patronage began devolving from royal courts to semi-private gatherings. Just as the social role of music was shifting, musical style was also in transition and the pre-Romantic ‘sensitive style’ (Empfindsamkeit) of the time, with its fluctuating moods, is well in evidence in tonight’s programme.

The Sinfonia in E Major (1774) by C.P.E. Bach opens the concert in a smooth, assured manner. The terms ‘sinfonia’ and ‘overture’ are still interchangeable in this period, and this piece is very short in comparison with later symphonies. Even within such a small frame, however, the music creates its own miniature drama of contrasts in tempo and dynamic, along with some surprising key-changes, as if daring to wrong-foot the listener at times. The IBO, expertly led by Monica Huggett, smartly negotiates all of this, with the ensemble kept on its toes to the very final bar.

The next work, C.P.E. Bach’s Quartet in G Major, dates from the composer’s 76th (and last) year, making it as late a work as they come. The harpsichord of Malcolm Proud substitutes for the (probably intended) fortepiano, and he is joined by the leading early flautist Lisa Beznosiuk, along with IBO players Marja Gaynor (viola) and Jonathan Byers (cello). The players approach the mercurial score with vivid flair, Beznosiuk’s flute adding a freshness to the instrumental colour mix. The haunting slow middle movement brings out some beautifully characterised playing, especially from Proud. The rapid-fire finale’s flowing motif sets up contrapuntal possibilities that has the instrumental lines scurrying around, as if chasing each other in a rapid, playful dance: a stunning piece.

Malcolm Proud’s harpsichord forms the focus of the closing work, W.F. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in E minor. This is a deceptive work of nervy intensity, at times restless and unsettled, as if asking questions of both players and listeners. The virtuoso keyboard role receives a fine performance from Proud, ably matched by the full ensemble. The brilliant, bustling finale speeds through with slick and emphatic performances, and draws lengthy applause at the end. Insightfully programmed, this concert shows off an ensemble clearly at the top of its game.

Programme:

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Sinfonia No. 6 in E major, Wq.182/6

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Quartet in G major, Wq.95

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in E minor, F.43

Irish Baroque Orchestra, led by Monica Huggett (violin), with soloists Malcolm Proud (harpsichord) and Lisa Beznosiuk (flute)

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