The 17th Northwest Bach Festival blasted off last Friday with the roar of Bach’s virtuoso organ music played by Stefan Kozinski. Later in the week, the festival’s music whispered intimately in two chamber music programs at The Met.
Sunday’s recital was played to a standing-room-only audience. For performers and audiences alike, a full house generates an electricity that enhances any musical thrills a concert can produce. The audience responded to those thrills twice with standing ovations.
The organ at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes can blow your socks off, as Kozinski demonstrated more than once. I prefer to keep my socks on, especially for the performance of complex music such as Bach’s. The bone-rattling loudness of Kozinski’s climaxes and his use of the organ’s more bizarre tonal resources were distracting and, at times, exasperating.
The rhetorical power of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor does not benefit oddities such as the organ’s harpsichord stop. (For those curious as to the origins of that weird effect, listen to Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of the Toccata and Fugue.) And Mozart’s Fantasy in F minor is not an industrial-strength re-composition of “Don Giovanni.”
When Kozinski extracted himself from his love affair with the organ’s gaudiest Day-Glo colors and roaring power, his Bach playing revealed musicianship of the highest order. The brilliant shower of notes in the Bach Fantasy in G major and the majestic splendor of its conclusion were truly moving.
Kozinski seemed very much at home with Robert Schumann’s Fugue on Bach and Cesar Franck’s Chorale in B minor, both of which do require a highly colored tonal palette.
If last Friday’s organ recital showed the very public world of Bach the organ virtuoso, Sunday’s program of Bach’s solo chamber music at The Met revealed an entirely different side of Bach. The Met concert furnished a glimpse into Bach’s most intimate musical thoughts through his music for unaccompanied string instruments along with a work for viola da gamba and harpsichord.
Colin Carr, an outstanding young English cellist, brought rapturous tonal warmth and rhythmic vitality to three of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Each suite is made up of a prelude and five dances. Carr made the suites into a ballet for the mind - not dances for dancing, but Bach’s private meditations on baroque dance rhythms and dance movements.
The audience, 400 or so refugees from the NFL playoff games, was as quietly absorbed as any I have seen, and rightly so. Carr’s unfailing technical skill with fingers and bow never called attention to the player, but only to the springiness of Bach’s gigues and the lamenting songfulness of the sarabandes.
Violinist Kelly Farris’ played Bach’s Solo Sonata in G minor with a deeply involved concentration and his customary musical integrity. Lacking only was the comfortable authority repeated performances of the work could bring.
Sunday’s program ended with delectable playing from viola da gambist Margriet Tindemans and harpsichordist Ilton Wjuniski in Bach’s Sonata in D major.
Though it looks something like a cello, the viola da gamba produces light, silvery sound of organlike purity. By the time Bach was writing for it, the instrument had become almost obsolete.
Tindemans makes it sing and dance with angelic grace, and Wjuniski was the perfect chamber music companion.
Wjuniski and Tindemans were joined Wednesday by soprano Janet Brown in another exploration of the private side of Bach’s music making - the music he wrote for his own family. The keyboard and vocal pieces were taken mainly from the two collections of music Bach made for his second wife, Anna Magdelena.
Brown proved an ideal interpreter. Her voice has the qualities Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach recalled his stepmother’s voice possessing, “a pure and clear soprano, unaffected in delivery.” Brown seemed perfectly attuned to whatever mood Bach required - the nearly ecstatic contemplation of death in “Gedenke doch, mein Geist,” to the tuneful expression of worldly love in “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken.”
Wjuniski makes the harpsichord do what the instrument is not supposed to be able to do: sing. The harpsichord’s tones cannot be joined seamlessly like those of a flute or the human voice, and successive notes cannot be increased or decreased in volume like those of a piano. In three of Bach’s “French Suites,” Wjuniski used subtle pushes and tugs on the rhythm and artful articulation to persuade the listener that he was listening to singing - splendid singing, at that.
MEMO: The Friday Bach Festival performance at First Presbyterian Church is sold out, and only a few tickets remain for Sunday’s performance at the church.