La Follia Plays J.S. Bach’s Greatest Chamber Music

Choosing Bach’s top chamber works may be impossible, but the baroque ensemble made a convincing case for five not-easy pieces in this concert

La Follia Artistic Director Keith Womer (Photo courtesy of La Follia)

Choosing Johann Sebastian Bach's greatest chamber music compositions isn't something I can imagine doing myself, but La Follia made a pretty convincing case for the five sonatas presented in the second concert of its 2017-18 all-Bach season. Among them, these intimate works showcased the composer at his most complex, his most intricate, and his most inventive, working and reworking themes with the rigor of a mathematician, uncovering combinations and variations that staggered the mind – not to mention the ear.

The Solo Violin Sonata in G minor proved that Bach didn't require more than one instrument to construct a musical work as monumental and labyrinthine as anything Theseus ever escaped from. In this one, the single violin seems to divide itself into two and pursue different themes simultaneously, with each one at times commenting on the other. Stephen Redfield, a master of the baroque violin, tackled the sonata's first two movements with vigor and grit, his face a mask of intense focus as his arms and fingers moved dexterously to draw forth this melodic split personality – and to resolve it.

When he gave himself two instruments to work with, Bach could more freely engage in his explorations of counterpoint. In the Flute Sonata in A major, La Follia Artistic Director Keith Womer on harpsichord and Marcus McGuff on flute created an airy ballet of bee and butterfly, with McGuff's dreamy flute fluttering around the delicate buzzing of Womer's harpsichord. In the Gamba Sonata in D major, which paired Womer with Eric Smith on viola de gamba, the music took an earthier turn, with the viola de gamba providing a deep contrast to the light keyboard. Smith's command of the instrument produced an eloquent lowing, with an echoing quality within the viola de gamba that infused some of the slower sections with a slightly haunted quality, as if it were reflecting regretfully on the themes tossed out as the harpsichord twirled about it.

The concert opened and closed with two works that brought all four players together. The first, Bach's Trio Sonata in E flat major arranged for chamber ensemble, began with a burst of exuberance that communicated the spiritual quality of so much of the composer's music. It was a sound redolent of praise, a joyous gratitude for the Creator and His gifts, and as the sonata continued, the praise was passed from violin to flute to cello to harpsichord, each instrument finding some new variation on this jubilant expression. Throughout, the music's purity – one of the many wonders of Bach's work, music that seems as natural as the rocks and rivers, the skies and seas – left the impression of the composer as having a direct line to the Divine, a connection both holy and whole.

The closer spoke to Bach's seemingly supernatural gift for improvisation and embellishment. As the story goes, the 62-year-old composer was visiting his son Carl Philipp Emanuel at the court of Frederick II in Prussia when he was challenged by the king to improvise a three-voice fugue based on a theme that the king provided. He did "to the astonishment of all," and when Frederick then challenged him to compose a six-voice fugue on the theme, Bach did that, too (albeit over some months back home in Leipzig). Womer played the initial improvisation on the harpsichord (Ricercar 3), then the foursome performed the Sonata Sopr'Il Soggetto Reale built on it, and the effect was like spinning under a dome of crystal prisms, a musical theme refracting in light and colors of infinite variety. Bach's greatest chamber music? It's not for me to say, but when it's presented as gloriously as it was by La Follia, who am I to argue?

J.S. Bach’s Greatest Chamber Music

Redeemer Presbyterian Church
Oct. 14

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La Follia, Keith Womer, Stephen Redfield, Marcus McGuff, Eric Smith, Johann Sebastian Bach

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