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Review: Bach To The Future, CBSO/Kuusisto at Symphony Hall

David Hart reviews Bach To The Future by CBSO/Kuusisto at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Bach To The Future, CBSO/Kuusisto at Symphony Hall
***

If forced to make a connection between minimalism and J. S. Bach, as the title of this concert inferred, not even a cynic would suggest something as naïve as mere ‘note spinning.’ While 20th century minimalists like Steve Reich and John Adams do clever – and occasionally meaningful – things with music’s basic elements, Bach took the manipulation of notes (just listen to the Art of Fugue) to unprecedented levels of expressive intensity.

And it was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and E major Violin Concerto that here provided refreshing juxtapositions to Reich’s little striving-for-effect essays.

The director/soloist was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, whose disarming charm and informality (including busking Scandinavian folk dances during platform rearrangements) was clearly a hit with the audience. His Bach interpretations were just as quirkily individual, tonally unforced and even pallid at times, with some phrases allowed to almost disappear into inaudibility – though in full flow he resorted to some very scratchy articulation, which the supportive, small CBSO string group led by Laurence Jackson wisely did not emulate.

At his best Reich can be maddeningly compelling, but the Triple Quartet and ‘Violin Phase’ we heard were just maddening, their basic ideas – rhythmic patterns and short phrases going out of sync – so tortuously and repetitively laboured you felt like shouting out, “Yes, got that, now move on.”

By comparison Adams’ ‘Shaker Loops’ is an imaginative, masterly constructed work bursting with inventiveness and the exploration of string textures and timbres, and all within a satisfying sense of growth and development.

Not surprisingly it produced the best playing of the evening – warm, rich and sensitively nuanced – and, although twice the length of either Reich piece, wasn't a moment too long. It was far more interesting, too.

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