Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Max Baillie

Beyond Bach

Victoria Kingham saw a wondrous programme of music from baroque to modern, at Christ Church St Leonards this week, featuring two top talents: violinist Max Baillie and conductor Marcio da Silva.

Honestly, I wasn’t going to write about this one. For once I went to the concert solely because I wanted to enjoy fabulous  music in that church with the astounding acoustics. It was, though, exceptional in a number of ways. It was the first collaboration between two gifted local musicians: Max Baillie, virtuoso violinist, musicologist, impresario, and Marcio da Silva, orchestra conductor, choir leader, and now opera chorus director (for Opera South East) as well.

The singers were the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra singers, a kind of semi-chorus of the full choir, plus I think one or two extra baritones and sopranos. It was an ambitious and challenging evening for all the musicians: the programme largely required the choir to sing a capella, which under da Silva’s direction they did well, singing through difficult harmonic shifts with panache, sensitivity, and understanding.

The evening centred on the solo violin, which was positioned at a particular point in the church building that enabled the melodies to soar and swoop unfettered. Max Baillie has the ability to pour out from his head seemingly unlimited complex solo pieces; apart from his excellence as a classical musician, one of the more endearing things about his performances is the pleasure he takes in them, a pleasure which he amply communicates through both the music and his approach to it.

But the programme was Beyond Bach for a reason. Most of us probably have in our heads, without even knowing it, a blueprint for ‘conventional’ harmony that was laid down by Bach in the early eighteenth century. Music may indeed seem to the listener ‘discordant’ or ‘difficult’ to the extent that it deviates from Bach’s well-tempered innovations. The whole programme, performed without a break, was a kind of reflection on this, a paean. Baillie chose to intersperse the Bach solo violin pieces, chorales and partitas with modern compositions which either extended Bach’s harmonies or subverted them.

The highlight of the evening came towards the end – the Bach Chaconne for solo violin, in an arrangement with added voices. Here it’s worth deviating into a little bit of musical history. The Chaconne (actually part of a set of six partitas and sonatas), has been called ‘the greatest structure for solo violin that exists’ and ‘one of the greatest achievements of any man in history … emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.’ The later composer Brahms wrote that if he had been able to even conceive of it, ‘the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind’.

The German professor Helga Thoene, who arranged this version with added voices, has written a treatise on this particular movement. Like a number of other scholars, some musical, some mathematical, she finds in Bach generally, and in this piece particularly, many notational patterns comprising numerological and symbolic references to death (German tod), and has developed a theory that in the Chaconne these comprise a tombeau, (memorial piece) in response to the tragedy that Bach’s wife had recently died unexpectedly while he was away.

This is a controversial idea, but putting aside whether one believes that this was intentional, Thoene’s addition of choral voices makes the piece ambient, compelling and sustained. And if these are funereal qualities then this arrangement demonstrates her own theory.

Going back to the beginning of the programme, the piece by Deborah Pritchard is an example of how much beyond Bach a piece of music can be while still retaining reference to his harmonic ideals. Inside Colour is a little journey, and because Pritchard is notably synaesthetic (sees colours and shapes in music), she represents it mainly in shades of red, green and blue. A wonderfully abstruse and contemplative piece, given full attention by Baillie.

Visualisation of Inside Colour by Deborah Pritchard (image: Deborah Pritchard/Wikimedia Commons).

The end of the programme was Messiaen’s piece, Louange (praise, homage) from his Quartet for the End of Time. Messiaen’s music was composed during World War II, while he was in a prisoner of war camp in occupied France. Like much of his work it is deeply Christian, with many unexpected melodic twists and turns, and has a slow, chime-like piano accompaniment (played by Morgan Hayes).

Like Pritchard, Messiaen was also sensorily gifted, but differently – he saw colours in music rather than related shapes. According to him, these colours were important in his compositional process. In contrast, Pritchard uses her gift to illustrate music retrospectively.

Messiaen’s piece was approached in kind, and the end of the programme held a remarkable stillness and silence in the performers and in the audience. A fine ending to a unique evening.

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Posted 16:57 Friday, Apr 19, 2024 In: Music & Sound

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