The afternoon of Sunday the 20th October saw the Bachian triumvirate – if I may so call them – of Johann Sebastian and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann honoured through a performance of six pieces for harpsichord and flute, both duet and solo. The programme promised something a little bit different, something fresh for the ears despite being comprised of compositions up to four hundred years old, and this it did deliver!
In much the same way as the famous ‘wall of sound’ 60s pop/rock music sought to produce layered textures through the blending of a range of instruments into one voice, the harpsichord being played in this performance, with its three manual keyboards, produced a rich, dense sound reminiscent of – or perhaps, given the dates of composition, a few hundred years preminiscent of – that famous pop sound.
This strikes me as somewhat apt, as these particular pieces have the feel of being the pop music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Or, indeed, dance music: along with the Sonatas and a Fantasie there featured in the programme two polonaises from the pen of WF Bach. These aren’t the more complex and involved symphonies, nor at the same time stately waltzes, nor yet the more strictly themed music like JS Bach’s famed masses intended to raise religious rapture. Rather, these pieces present as music to be listened to and enjoyed – and maybe danced to, if the whimsy took you that way – before applauding and going back to chatting with the rest of the court about who you think will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.
Not, it must be said, that the setting was one which encouraged much in the way of dancing in the aisles. The beautiful chapel of Newman College in the upper reaches of Unimelb’s Parkville campus did however provide, in addition to the marvellous aesthetics, splendid acoustics. This was particularly brought out in CPE Bach’s Sonata in A minor for flute without bass – a truly delightful title – where the Quantz flute of Greg Dikmans seemed almost to be playing in harmony with itself as the music reverberated through the hall. As might be imagined these acoustics only served to reinforce the ‘wall of harpsichord’ I referred to above; not in a way which muddied or distracted, not at all! The crisp notes of David Macfarlane’s harpsichord, whether solo or in duet with the flute, rang clearly throughout.
That combination of flute and harpsichord is one I’ve not encountered before, which was one of the things that intrigued me about this performance. The Quantz flute has a richer, lower tone than others which contrasted interestingly with the more spiky, almost electronic voice of the harpsichord. This led the ear to half expect the flute to be carrying the rhythmic pulse of the piece more so than the harpsichord, which was borne out to an extent in the final piece. JS Bach’s Sonata in A major for flute and harpsichord (BWV 1032) features a reconstruction by Dikmans of some 45 missing bars in its first movement, and also features a second melodic line for the harpsichord in addition to the underlying bass line, which provides an enchanting melodic dialogue with the flute, pleasing the ears of all.
At just a tick over an hour long, this programme was perfect for a Sunday afternoon for all ages, with enough variety of composition and pacing to easily hold the interest. A hard, stiff-backed wooden pew is perhaps not my first choice of seating for this kind of performance but of course, what else can one expect from a church? It is oft said that almost anything can be borne for ten seconds. Well, to that wisdom I will add this: almost any pew can be sat upon for an hour to be granted such aesthetics, such acoustics, and such art.