Having last visited San Francisco this past March to help American Bach Soloists celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach with performances on both harpsichord and organ, Anthony Newman returned last night, this time to the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The title of his program was Anthony Newman and Friends, and this time Newman performed only on the Kevin Fryer Flemish harpsichord that is part of the SFCM instrument collection. The “friends” for the occasion were all familiar members of the San Francisco early music community, flutist Joshua Romatowski (who had performed with Newman in March), violinists Noah Strick and Lisa Weiss, violist Lisa Grodin, cellist Gretchen Claassen, and bassist Kristin Zoernig.
The title suggested that last night was as much a gathering of friends as it was a more formal concert. It this respect it revived the spirit of Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig, where Bach would gather on Friday evenings with his Collegium Musicum friends. In this respect it is valuable to recognize that these gatherings were less like “concert” occasions and more in the spirit of what, a few centuries later, jazz colleagues would call “jamming.” The musicians may have had the eighteenth-century version of “charts;” but the activity was more one of making music from the charts, rather than simply decoding the marks of notation. Thus, the salient quality of last night’s event was the sense of immediacy in the music-making.
This was particularly evident when all hands were on deck, so to speak, for a performance of Bach’s BWV 1050 (fifth) “Brandenburg” concerto. The solo instruments for this concerto are harpsichord (the only composition in the “Brandenburg” set in which the harpsichord serves as more than continuo), flute, and violin. Weiss covered the violin solo; but she also led the one-to-a-part ripieno, which involved the remaining musicians. History suggests that this concerto was not part of the Collegium Musicum repertoire; but, if it had been so, this would probably have been how it was played.
This was where the immediacy of the situation could be appreciated. By treating both solo and ripieno parts as a conversation among friends, BWV 1050 acquired a lively spirit that tends to get lost when a conductor (or even a concertmaster) becomes the leader of the whole affair. The attentive listener could relish the many different dimensions of give-and-take, not only among the soloists but also between soloists and ensemble, however modest that ensemble may have been. Indeed, the opportunity to listen to each part played by a single musician highlighted just how much attention Bach had paid to writing every one of those parts. All this was given a splendidly refreshing account last night, complete with a “kicker” to step up the tempo for the recapitulation of the concluding movement, creating the sense of a stirring rush into the final measures.
BWV 1050 was complemented by the final work on the program, the BWV 1052 D minor harpsichord concerto, scored for an ensemble consisting only of strings. This is probably a more likely candidate for those Leipzig jam sessions, probably with Bach firing on all cylinders from the harpsichord keyboard. Here, again, last night’s execution was all about high spirits, again with a bit of increased velocity as the concerto (and the entire program) drew to a close.
In both of these cases, Newman himself performed with little physical display from his post at the keyboard. Activity was confined almost exclusively to his fingers, while his body always maintained a calm composure. Given the torrents of notes coming out of Bach’s more virtuoso passages, Newman’s body could have been the eye of a hurricane. However, his unassuming physical appearance did much to keep mind focused on the sounds themselves without the interference of “visual effects.” There is little record of the physical behavior of the Collegium Musicum performers; but it would not be surprising if it turned out that they were a bit (or a lot) more raucous.
Newman also gave a solo performance of the BWV 971 “Italian” concerto in F major. Since this was part of the second volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) series, it is reasonable to assume that Bach had originally intended it for pedagogical purposes. However, as has frequently been observed on this site, pedagogy for Bach entailed far more than just decoding those marks of notation. The spirit of BWV 971 is probably closer to that of Thelonious Monk’s solo jamming on the songs of Duke Ellington than it is to any evocation of a concerto in a concert setting. Here, again, Newman approached the music with calm certainty, keeping all of the action in his finger-work, always finding the right way to shape his phrases to establish the ongoing exchanges between “solo” and “ripieno” passages, all distilled down to the confines of a single instrument.
Two other composers were included on the program. The evening began with Strick taking the solo in a D major violin sonata by Antonio Vivaldi (RV 798). Playing as soloist with a harpsichord accompaniment, Strick knew how to use repeated passages as an opportunity to explore a variety of embellishments. Whether these were calculated or spontaneous, what mattered most was that the execution suggested the spontaneity of the occasion.
Following the intermission both Strick and Weiss performed as soloists in George Frideric Handel’s HWV 399 trio sonata in G major. While a trio sonata usually involves two solo parts and a continuo, Newman observed that Handel had added a viola part. He took this as evidence that Handel was one of the pioneers of what would become the string quartet. He made an interesting case, but it would probably have to involve several more examples before concluding that his claim could be warranted.
The trio sonata itself was rather unconventional in structure. The first two movements amounted to an overture in the French style. They were followed by an extended passacaglia; and the work concluded with a gigue and a minuet, with the minuet, rather than the gigue, as the “finale.” This made for a rather lengthy composition, but it was executed at a graceful clip that gave no suggestion that Handel had gone on for too long.