In the last 100 years the instrumental concerto has grown from a solo showcase sparingly accompanied to an exercise in building gargantuan orchestras. The score of a recent cello concerto listed no fewer than 37 percussion instruments. Talk about Concerto Grosso (don’t get me started on the actual percussion concertos…)
So how refreshing to find a commissioning project for the musical forces at the court of Cöthen. JS Bach had no trouble creating infinite variety with limited means – and smaller concerti are much needed in our straitened economic times.
Bach Reborn is the brain-child of Thomas Dausgaard, chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra since 1997, and its vivacious manager Gregor Zubicky. It launched last week in the SCO’s newly-improved concert hall in Örebro, with concerti by Americans Steve Mackey and Uri Caine.
Each had been allowed a choice of solo instruments as long as they stuck to the ensemble instrumentation of their ‘model’ concerto. For Mackey’s playful Triceros, Brandenburg No. 2 for piccolo trumpet –and trumpet star Håkan Hardenberger – were the inspirations, to which he added mellow flugelhorn and trumpet in C. Hardenberger himself, after a nervy start, settled into a blistering performance of the Bach, whose final high C carried us directly into the shimmering white light of Mackey’s own concerto. A weird sense of dissolution gradually found focus in the luxurious melancholy of a flugel horn tune, before a switch to jazz-inflected trumpet against gritty strings. Mackey keeps the scenery moving in this one-movement work; his trumpet idles with silver suavity over a dynamic, swung bass, or shares gurgling trills on flugelhorn with throaty solo violin (Katarina Andreasson). True interplay between the concertante group occurred but didn’t feel structurally essential. Just as striking was the combination of trumpet with desolate harpsichord, or piccolo trumpet with bass alone. Mackey brought us back to Bach in a finale of stratospheric virtuosity, dazzlingly achieved by Hardenberger on piccolo trumpet.
While Mackey was once a rock guitarist, Uri Caine is a talented jazz pianist and approached this much as Bach-the-keyboard-improviser might have done, in the hot seat and spinning his own cadenzas. Caine’s creative intimacy with the canon (such as his inspired take on the Goldbergs) is legendary, and Hamsa (5 in Arabic) boldly uses Brandenburg No. 5 (elegantly performed by Björn Gäfvert) as a template, even employing Bach’s phrases before subverting them with acts of cheerful violence and witty digressions. The motoric energy and the rhetorical structure are in place, but the lord of misrule has been let loose, with basses used as drum kit and glissandi strings winding up and down and apparently going nowhere. His first cadenza was a harmonic tour de force, which dipped into stride piano, before cheekily stealing Bach’s own segue back to the tutti. The slow movement began with the airy waving of bows before the flute found its voice (luminous playing from Fiona Kelly), Caine fixating on one pitch before taking wing against an icy mist of harmonics. His finale felt like a celebration, retaining that vital sense of dance, despite being over-long and a little over-dressed.
Next year sees Mark-Anthony Turnage’s (paired with Bach’s first), then comes Anders Hillborg’s take on No. 3 in 2017, with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6) completing the project in 2018. All the concerti will be toured, and eventually released on the BIS label.