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Celebrations of Bach: some brazen, some bewitching, some so-so

Honoring composers' milestone birthday years ensures a chance to be reacquainted with the variety of output from each particular muse. But when the composer of the day is Johann Sebastian Bach, the problem is one of logistics -- where to begin honoring his 300th? The list of compositions is so vast one is usually reduced to obvious choices. Thus, most orchestras around the country and the world will have done, if not one of the Passions, or the B-minor Mass, then at least a few Brandenberg concertos, or one of the overtures.

In New York alone it has been nigh impossible to avoid his music in some fashion or another. So many concert series have offered their own special tributes, large and small. Performing ensembles traveling to New York have brought along Bach works. The New York Philharmonic devoted two weeks to a Bach program led by Rafael Kubelik. Carnegie Hall offered the two Passions -- ``St. John'' and ``St. Matthew'' -- and the B-minor Mass.

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Perhaps the most creative approach to celebration was Michael Gielen's -- who offered Sch"onberg's transcription of the Triple Fugue in E-flat, and Webern's arrangement of the ``Ricercar'' No. 2 from the ``Musical Offering,'' as the opening works of a Cincinnati Symphony concert at Carnegie Hall. The brazen verve with which Sch"onberg tried to re-create, then expand upon, the sonorities of an organ in the context of a full-fledged 20th-century orchestra made for some bracing moments that had less to do with Bachian ideals than with Sch"onberg's bewitching fascination with orchestral timbres and colors. Webern, likewise, brought his musical ethos to his transcription, which deploys fragments of the contrapuntal lines throughout the sections of his modest orchestra, making Bach sound almost 12-tone.

Gielen, a thoughtful, bold musician, made the very most of the scores and, in the Sch"onberg, showed off his Cincinnati forces to particularly fine effect. (The centerpieces of his two programs were Beethoven's Third and Seventh Symphonies, but his rethinking of those works is really the subject of a future column.)

More predictable was the Carnegie Hall offering of the three choral works, under the baton of John Nelson. The music director of the Indianapolis Symphony chose a point halfway between standard performance tradition and authentic practices. The chorus was all-male, with the soprano parts delegated to the remarkable American Boychoir. A soprano soloist was used, but a male alto rather than mezzo soprano. The orchestra played on modern instruments, except when a viola da gamba or a lute or something specific was required. (However, the oboe da caccia was not included, as is the norm today.) Those period instruments added jarring touches to the tonal picture. The male alto voice is not as communicative of the sentiments in the music as a mezzo. The boy sopranos added a cherishable quality to the choral work. And the Orchestra of St. Luke's, which has been heartily praised in these pages on numerous other occasions, did not disappoint. Yet somehow the overall performances did.

A certain sense of unpreparedness threatened to intrude and swamp the general excellence of the musicmaking. Mr. Nelson is a gifted director, but not the sort of visionary to give us a full sense of the spiritual content of this music. When Bach was telling a story, Nelson was at his best; when Bach was unfolding a contemplative moment, Nelson's beautifully hushed sonorities were not suffused with that extra dimension of the visionary needed to make those moments so deeply moving. (For this reason, I chose not to hear the B-minor Mass -- as pure a musical statement of visionary faith as ever was created.)

Two of his singers were the finest available for the repertoire: John Aler, who sang the tenor arias sensitively in the ``St. John Passion,'' proved to be the finest evangelist in this reviewer's memory -- superb of diction, radiant of tone, and effortless in the spinning out of the tricky musical line; Elly Ameling wedded her experience in Bach to her innate simplicity of musical declamation to make her St. John arias unsually moving. Countertenor Paul Esswood made much of the ``St. John'' arias, and struggled all too effortfully with those in the ``St. Matthew.'' (In fact, the best-known alto aria, ``Erbarme dich,'' was sung by Michael Dash, a young countertenor who lacked consistency but whose timbre captured something hauntingly beautiful.)

Maestro Kubelik's outing at the Philharmonic was severly hampered by conventional programming -- the Third Overture, the choral fragment of the 50th Cantata, the D-minor two-violin concerto (prosaically rendered by assistant concertmasters), and the ``Magnificat.'' Kubelik's view of the music is rather more inflated and soggy than one might expect. And the ``Magnificat,'' with the exception of the sublime Benita Valente, was scuttled by dreadful singing.

More successful was the Philharmonic's Handel tribute under the baton of Kurt Masur, in a less than startling program -- the second suite of the ``Water Music,'' the second Coronation Anthem, and the ``Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day.'' But the last-mentioned work filled Avery Fisher Hall with glorious singing from Arleen Auger, a magnificent Handelian.

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Phillip Creech, deputizing for Vinson Cole, sounded only slightly less at ease here than in the aforementioned Bach ``Magnificat.'' But Masur's crisp yet elegant, lyrical way with the music, and his sense of the ``Ode'' as a thrilling event piece, made the music come to life in a way Kubelik's overreverential Bach never quite managed.

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