Bach has long been at home at Manhattan’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, right on Central Park West. The congregation has hosted Sunday evening Bach Vespers services six months out of the year for more than half a century. The season includes performances outside of services as well, and on 5th October Bach made an appearance in the somewhat more secular programming with a performance by the New York ensemble House of Time under the banner “Transcendent Bach”.

House of Time at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church © Oliver Weston
House of Time at the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
© Oliver Weston

Ensemble oboist and master of ceremonies Gonzalo X. Ruiz appeared in unusual attire – concert black with a do wrap – but also with impeccable tone on his Baroque instrument, explaining the history of the pieces and the ways they’d been reworked. What was being transcended, it seemed, was more utilitarian than argumentative. They weren’t updating or inflating Bach’s scores so much as transcending the original forms to fit their own purposes. The opening Trio sonata in C minor (taken from an organ score which is believed to have been an arrangement from an earlier, since lost, arrangement for small ensemble), for example, was retrofitted for the quartet of oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord. It made for an enjoyable preamble to an uneven evening.

In the Trio in G major, the transcending was in the work of Baroque oboist and scholar Bruce Haynes, who took the three violin sonatas, transposed and combined them to create a single chamber piece for quartet. One can imagine that Bach's music is so exacting in its architecture that collaging his pieces would barely be possible. One can also imagine that the master was so systematic that his pieces might fit together as easily as Lego blocks. Whether “recomposing” Bach (to borrow a term from Max Richter) is a rudimentary task or its own kind of genius is, perhaps, an open question, but it was exciting to hear what amounted to a new and quite convincing Bach quartet.

Of course, Bach recomposed himself quite often, borrowing and recycling his own themes to meet the demands of the church calendar. But in an unlikely four movements, Hayes created something likely to satisfy all but the most absolutist of connoisseurs who have exhausted themselves of his other 1,200 works. With two Allegro movements, it was a jaunty ride, given a sprightly performance by the quartet, the oboe again occupying the center, with violin counterpoint, but the continuo by harpsichord and cello was light and precise, an exemplary grounding for the flight of period fancy.

The Flute sonata in E flat major was once credited to Bach, but is generally thought to be the work of his son, CPE Bach, perhaps written with the elder's editorial oversight. Ruiz aptly described the piece, transposed here for oboe and harpsichord, as “somewhere between Bach and Mozart”. It came off as frivolous, and not the heady frivolity of the father. It was rather a diversion – not a transcending of time, just a passing of it.

The performances weren’t perfect. Notes were missed by several of the players and a full measure dropped at one point due to a miscalculated turning of pages. But the evening was not without highlights. Matt Zucker played most of the Suite for unaccompanied cello in G major without score, although the dropping of two of the six movements was simply inexplicable. A single movement extracted serves as a sample. But playing two-thirds of a piece – and without acknowledgment of the truncation – was hard to reconcile, despite the natural ease of the delivery. Perhaps it was just a time-saving measure.

The Chaconne from the Violin partita no. 2, on the other hand, has taken on an excerpted life, often performed on its own and in dramatic variation. (Pauline Kim Harris has just released a wonderful and dramatic, 45-minute version with electronics on her album Heroine.) Violinist Tatiana Daubek gave the music the fluidity it wants, as if the walls in the house of time had grown soft, but not so much as to take it from its own time.

The Chaconne has an elasticity that Bach's music allows but isn't often afforded. For whatever reason, the piece has come to represent an expressivity that presages the Classical era, even if there's no actual historical linkage. Here the performance wasn't especially transcendent – at least if we accept that too much rigor has generally been applied to Bach's operations. But in the more expected sense of transcendence, it's hard to imagine a Bach Chaconne not lifting a listener from the anchor of the earthly realm, and indeed Daubek's flawlessly lyrical rendering filled the cavernous, gold-leaf cathedral with splendor.

***11