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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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New Comma Baroque joins the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble for a lively performance of early music written and inspired by Bach
A collaboration with Illinois' New Comma Baroque led to lively, intense performances.
Credit:Eric Miller

The season closer by the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, offered at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Friday, was particularly novel. Not the usual program of individual shorter pieces, favoring this or that member of the group. This time, the music was instrumental, and by Bach, in one way or another. And it joined four players of the Ensemble with five players of the Illinois group New Comma Baroque.

The program's title was "Brandenburg X: Bach’s Exploration of the Viola da Braccio, the Violoncello, and the Viola da Gamba." Well, to begin with, it wasn't Bach's own exploration, but that of the musicians via adaptations of his music. The concept was based upon two premises, each rather dubious. The first premise was regret that Bach composed no more than one work scored for two violas, two gambas or cellos, and continuo -- the Sixth of what are known as the Brandenburg Concertos.

But those six works, never originally intended as a "cycle," were each scored for wildly different playing groups, each meant to be an individual and isolated experiment in instrumental combinations. Bach apparently had no inclination or need to "explore" that combination again. It is the pining of modern-day players for more such writing that prompts efforts to create what are simply "fake Bach" concertos, made up of transcriptions from bits and pieces drawn from other works he composed.

Which leads us to the second premise: that such ventures are justified because Bach himself transcribed and recast some of his music (including music from two of the Brandenburgs themselves). Well, it is indeed fascinating to find Bach rethinking his own music, or even things by some of his contemporaries. But there are no Bachs at work in the transcriptions advanced in these programs. Only our own contemporaries, re-Baching Bach for their purposes.

The program opened with the Sixth Brandenburg itself, played appropriately with one to a part. This was followed, along the way, by two made-up transcription sets pretentiously called "Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 12 and 7." The actual Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is really a two-viola concerto with a lot of reinforcement of the continuo bass line. The gambas have little prominence of their own, beyond giving chordal harmonization of the bass line, and they do not even appear in the second of the three movements. "Concerto No. 12," cooked up by two Canadians, simply replaces the violas with two cellos as soloists, and gives only a little more work to the gambas. And "Concerto No. 7," confected by the well-known British musicologist Duncan Druze, slavishly follows Bach's model, with Bach's approach to scoring: little for the gambas, who again sit out the middle movement.

In between, there was an adaptation of Bach's own adaptation for three gambas without continuo, of what started as a gamba sonata and then became a trio sonata.

There was one other authentic piece by Bach in the program, his Concerto for Two Harpsichords (BWV 1061) in its original form without the familiar string parts that were apparently added later. This was played with flair by Max Yount and Emily Jane Katayama.

So, this was a program, not of revelations about Bach, but of fun for players of middle and lower stringed instruments under pretense of offering Bach. It must be said that the players threw themselves into all this with gusto, and a conviction that transcended a few passing moments of rough playing in difficult music.

Ultimately, the real importance of this lively concert was the merging of two early-music performing groups. Trevor Stephenson's ensemble, Madison Bach Musicians, has featured individual "outsiders" at its performances. But it is a sign of the health of early-music activity that such groups as the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble and New Comma Baroque can enrich each other's work through collaboration.

But still, I did miss violins.

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