Once upon a time, people did not really know who Bach was. It sounds unbelievable, but it is quite true. After Mendelssohn started the “Bach revival” by rediscovering the St Matthew Passion, more and more composers felt the need to bring his music to wider audiences. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became usual to transcribe Bach’s music for different instruments. This is the reason why there is a very interesting repertoire of symphonic music based on the Kantor’s scores. Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to find these works in concert programmes, so the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra gave us an unusual opportunity to enjoy different aspects to Bach’s music.

Cristian Măcelaru © David Swanson
Cristian Măcelaru
© David Swanson

The selection included orchestrations by Schoenberg, Holst, Granados, Elgar, Stokowski and Cailliet. Thanks to this, the concert was a catalogue of different ways to understand orchestration, as well as Bach’s music. Putting together this list of composers would be almost impossible in any other concert, but it has pros and cons. Among the pros, there is the great interest for aficionados to compare, in a single concert, the visions of different composers and periods on Bach’s works. Plus, there was the chance to enjoy some of Bach's most well-known melodies – a brilliant idea. Nevertheless, sometimes good ideas just don’t work in a concert, and this was the case here: applause after every piece and changes in the orchestral layout lead to a lack of rhythm due to the time it took for the musicians to reconfigure.

The overall experience was good though. This was the first time Cristian Măcelaru conducted the OBC, and he showed an extraordinary sense of monumentality and spectacle. The programme required him to adapt to very different styles, and he was able to deal with this variety. The concert started with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of the popular D minor Toccata and Fugue, famously used in Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia, emphasizing the splendour and ostentatiousness of the original organ score. It was a great way to start the concert. The OBC played together with the students of the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, which made it possible to reinforce the orchestra and find the great energy required for this spectacular opener.

On the opposite extreme, Stokowski’s transcription of Komm süsser Tod was intimate reading of Bach’s original score, full of delicacy. Lucien Cailliet’s version of the “Little” Fugue BWV 578 was delivered by Măcelaru with nerve and precision, allowing us to enjoy an orchestration that grows together with the fugue, in a breathtaking progression leading to a final orchestral explosion.

To recover calm, the first half finished with Schoenberg. Listening to the most revolutionary musician of the 20th century paying tribute to Bach is always a beautiful present. His version of Prelude and Fugue in E flat major BWV 552, the “St Anne”,  is a treatise about instrumentation and a hard work for any orchestra and conductor. It is easy to lose the tension, and so happened for some moments despite Măcelaru’s efforts.

The second haf began with Enrique Granados' version of C sharp minor Fugue BWV 849. It was a last-minute incorporation as the score was recently rediscovered thanks to the celebration of Granados Year (he was born 150 years ago). It was the oldest work in the concert (1900) and it shows the influence of Wagner and Berlioz orchestral conception on the Spanish composer. A soft sound, with string protagonists in a small orchestra, it was a subtle way to remember that Granados was, together with cellist Pablo Casals, an impeller of Bach’s reception in Catalonia.

Holst’s orchestration of G major Fugue is almost a chamber work for string quartet. It seems that the composer of The Planets did not feel the need to use a large formation to deliver this cheerful gigue. Măcelaru understood that in this case simplicity and a sense of rhythm are the keys to enjoy this music.

Schoenberg again (Komm, Gott, schopfer, heiliger Geist) and Elgar (the D minor Fantasy and Fugue BWV 537) led us to a magnificent end: Respighi’s monumental version of the enormous Passacaglia and Fugue. In this case, Respighi had in mind his own orchestral skills rather than Bach’s style. The result is an amazing work that could have been perfectly created from scratch by the Italian composer. The best of Bach and the best of symphonic style are put together to surprise the audience. Măcelaru navigated the complexity and greatness of this score in a vibrant interpretation.

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