BBC SSO / Wigglesworth
City Halls, Glasgow
There is a suggestion that Bach’s 1738 harpsichord concerto in E major, BWV 1053, has come down to us as a keyboard work having begun life as an oboe concerto. Whether or not that is the case, it shares melodic material with two cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, so the sense of a singing solo line is understandable. It is not always in the hands of the soloist, however, with the strings – who would have been the composer’s music college students at the first coffee house performances – having their share of the tune, especially at the start of the Siciliano slow movement.
Played here on a modern concert grand piano by the SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, this was more the kind of performance one might hear in this hall from Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but the ever-versatile BBC Scottish proved equal to the challenge of leaping across the centuries in the second of Wigglesworth’s interesting programmes pairing Bach with Stravinsky.
When Bach created a concerto for the keyboard he was at the cutting edge of musical development, and that was certainly one thing that linked the work with that of the Russian composer on Thursday evening, although logistical considerations meant it preceded the two Stravinsky works rather than being the filling in the concert’s musical sandwich as originally intended.
In the 1953 score for Balanchine’s Agon Stravinsky is concerned with stripping things back to their essence for a work that is all about the number 12 and its divisions. That was the size of the company of dancers from New York City Ballet when it was premiered in 1957 (memorably re-created by Scottish Ballet at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival) and it is also the number of the notes in the chromatic scale and the structure for using them proposed by Arnold Schoenberg.
Stravinsky playfully combines the twelve-tone row techniques of serialism with classical forms (Sarabande, Galliarde, and Bransle rather than Siciliano here) in twenty minutes of music that is less austere than it at first appears. Exotic combinations of instruments, with percussion and brass joined by a mandolin as well as solo violin, are featured over the twelve movements, but the large orchestra never plays as an ensemble.
Just as Balanchine made work on his dancers very differently from Nijinsky, so the music of Agon is very different from that of The Rite of Spring, from four decades previously. Wigglesworth’s Rite was not riotous in the least, and much more about precision than passion. If it lacked the excitement of some performances of the work, it would undoubtedly have served the purpose for which it was composed very well indeed. As we had heard in Agon before the interval, the conductor never forgot that this was music composed for dancers.
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