Music @ Menlo Live: From Bach

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bartok,Beethoven,Brahms,Britten,Debussy,Franck,Gershwin,Haydn,JS Bach,Mendelssohn,Mozart,Saint-Saens,Schubert,Schumann,Shostakovich,Strauss,Tournier
LABELS: Music at Menlo Live
ALBUM TITLE: Music @ Menlo Live: From Bach
WORKS: Works by JS Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Bartók, Shostakovich, Franck, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Gershwin, Britten, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Tournier, Beethoven, Strauss
PERFORMER: Various Artists
CATALOGUE NO: Music at Menlo Live 2013 (8 discs)

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JS Bach has long cast an enriching influence over Menlo’s programming, but last year he occupied centre stage in a festival that prefers its audiences to do more than just sit back and listen. Café Conversations, AudioNotes and Encounter Lectures reinforce themed concerts calculated to spark connections; and if some of the connections in From Bach seem a little nebulous (piano quintets by Shostakovich and César Franck are lined up in one programme to demonstrate the legacy of Bach’s ‘lush writing for large ensemble’, for example), there’s no contesting the quality of the music-making – enlivened by that energising frisson which invigorates the best festivals. And thanks to Menlo’s roster of faculty artists, it’s open season on chamber music that inevitably slips through the net of the standard string quartet or piano trio concert. On the first CD – launched joyously with Bach’s Concerto for Two Keyboards, BWV 1061, nimbly negotiated by Derek Han and Gloria Chen – Schumann’s Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos and horn (squirreling away an unexpected and disarming quotation from Frauenliebe und-leben) gets an airing alongside a feisty account of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Similarly the Francophile CD 6 finds room for Saint-Saëns’s Fantasie for violin and harp whose Andante sounds rather like a paraphrase of Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa. Marcel Tournier’s Suite for flute, harp and string trio, meanwhile, proves voluptuously inconsequential.

‘Bach and the Concerto’ (CD 3) opens with a relaxed and lyrical account of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060, its ‘edge’ – as in a slightly under-nuanced account of Brandenburg No. 3 – compromised by the harpsichord’s recessed place in the sound picture. But how serendipitous to follow it with the avuncular refinement of Gilbert Kalish’s Mozart Piano Concerto K414, composed as a tribute to Bach’s son, Johann Christian. To finish, Wu Han and Benjamin Beilman ardently nail the adolescent protests and virtuosity of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano.

Scattered through the set are standout performances from the Danish String Quartet who bring a warm expressivity to Haydn, exemplary clear-sightedness to Mozart’s great Adagio and Fugue in C minor, and searing intensity to the Shostakovich Piano Quintet – its feverish scherzo glittering through gritted teeth. There’s more memorable Shostakovich, too, on CD 4’s exploration of that iconic twosome, the prelude and fugue, where three examples from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier are played with urbanity and translucence by Gilles Vonsattel – and crowned by Benjamin Britten’s bravura specimen for 18 strings.

From Bach is more than just an eight-disc memento for Menlo aficionados. Its California dreamin’ reaches out beyond Silicon Valley, stimulating and seducing.

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Paul Riley