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31 July 2007

Bach on Speed

ASQ // QLD // 09.05.07

Australian String Quartet Image: Australian String Quartet  

Whether acting on a feminine hunch or her trademark compositional intuition, Elena Kats-Chernin – commissioned to write a 15-minute piece for the Australian String Quartet – was inspired to create something with an ‘unromantic, dry, crisp and light sound’ and was drawn to the musical notebook of J.S. Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, for material.

A gift to Anna Magdalena from her husband (four years into their marriage), the notebook was beautifully bound in sea green parchment, decorated and engraved in gold with the date (1725) and her initials AMB.

The book started with two partitas and grew over time with a mixture of compositions from various members of the family. From this collection, Kats-Chernin chose six short pieces for their appeal and potential to work well in contrast with each other.

the concert began with the energy and vibrancy of something that could perhaps best be described as ‘Bach on Speed’And work they did at the Brisbane premiere in their guise as From the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. This was to be the middle work in a program, which began with Mendelssohn’s Quartet, op. 44 no. 3 and ended with the mighty Quintet op. 81 by Dvoƙák, with guest artist Piers Lane. The audience was greeted instead with a switch of order in the first half, and so the concert began with the energy and vibrancy of something that could perhaps best be described as ‘Bach on Speed’.

Mentally prepared for the horse-drawn carriage – as one is with the prospect of a ‘Baroque’ aesthetic – this felt more like an Audi in top gear, with all the colour and movement one sees from a car window when simple scenery is sped up. Not that it wasn’t a thrill – it just took some readjustment. With such a pace there was little time for contemplation – a pity perhaps, since there was certainly much to ponder.

While this could not be officially classed as programmatic music, Kats-Chernin’s choice of material was inextricably bound up with external reference, borrowing as it did from the work of another. The act of borrowing – whether by way of adapting, arranging or transcribing – is a debated but hardly uncommon practice in the history of music. In this case, Kats-Chernin need look no further for justification than to J. S. Bach himself, who made much use of it.

Was this a simple reminder that behind every great man there’s a very busy woman, or did this contain more feminist overtones?Yet was this an attempt to engage us in reflection on the Baroque aesthetic, or the act of repositioning Bach in today’s musical and aesthetic climate? Perhaps not. It was not J.S. Bach, but Anna Magdalena who provided the title and focus of Kats-Chernin’s program notes. Portrayed as the unsung hero of the Bach household, Anna Magdalena – we are reminded – in addition to being a talented singer in her own right, was also mother to thirteen children, took care of her husband, students and guest musicians passing through, and supported the central role that the music played in their lives (including acting as copyist!).

One can’t help but ruminate on this superwoman subtext. Was this a simple reminder that behind every great man there’s a very busy woman, or did this contain more feminist overtones? (Even Bach, a lover of symbolic reference might have appreciated the female trilogy of muse, composer and performers during this premiere). The piece was over too quickly to come to a conclusion, which leads me to suspect that if Elena Kats-Chernin had wanted us to think about this aspect of the music she would have included time for it.

On a more simple reading: A day in the life of Anna Magdalena Bach no doubt required a good deal of energy, a point which was admirably reflected in the music. Brimming with rhythmic drive, the Suite had enough intensity and quirky edges to give it a personality of its own – one that made the following Mendelssohn seem somewhat bland in comparison. The rhythmic, almost percussive insistence of the first Polonaise and Musette produced a kind of ‘thick’ minimalism, though the sound was left thin at times with too little support from the bass line.

The following Aria paid tribute to the ‘excrutiatingly beautiful piece Bist du bei mir’, and the quartet worked impressively to very quickly create a space special enough for the tenderness, adapting to the lushness of sound suitable for the chorale-like chordal writing. Without pause – though a short one would not have gone astray – the tone was again very quickly contrasted, this time by sharp pizzicatos in the opening of the following Menuet. Promising far more than your average 3 / 4 dance, the spiky timbres were replaced – a little disappointingly – by a return to the somewhat familiar, lyrical quartet textures for the main melody.

The second Polonaise brought a return to the intensity of the first two movements, with a canon lead by the cello, though the music suggested a greater dramatic potential than was managed on this particular occasion. In the final Menuet, the joy of recognition of Bach’s original piece by the audience was tangible. Perhaps the performers missed an opportunity here to bond with their audience by acknowledging this – their somewhat intense concentration seeming a little out of character for the lighthearted nature of the finale.

Overall Kats-Chernin’s intuition was on the mark, with her choice of music well suited to the Australian String Quartet, who radiate a youthful, driven, energetic professionalism. While there were a few subtle imbalances in the interaction – suggesting the group could have been more united in their embrace of the desired sound – this will no doubt happen naturally as they have more time to get to know the music. It will be a real pleasure to hear them play this stimulating and vibrant work again in a few years’ time.

Performance details

Australian String Quartet
Works by Elena Kats-Chernin, Dvorák, Mendelssohn
Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane, Wednesday 9 May 2007

Further links

Kirsty Guster is a pianist with a passion for the significance and deeper meanings of music. She is currently conducting research into classical pianists' perceptions of the 'intangible' in music for a PhD at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, after obtaining a Master of Music in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music, New York, supported by a Fulbright and Queens Trust Award.


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