“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, goes the familiar phrase, and that can be applied in life to any number of things, including music. Were the father of harmony, Johann Sebastian Bach, still alive today, he would be beyond flattered. The Aurora Orchestra’s principal musicians’ “Echoes of Bach” concert, part of the year-long Bach Unwrapped series at Kings Place, showed that later composers imitated Bach not only by transcribing, but also by extracting recognisably “JSB” melodies and motifs, and weaving them into something harmonically and structurally very new and distinct.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

There are countless transcriptions of Bach’s music for larger musical bodies, so it was refreshing to listen to a concert that was more intimate and focused on small-scale and solo work. With “echoes of Bach” by composers as diverse as Mozart and Schnittke, the concert stretched over the centuries, providing an opportunity to explore how differently – and how similarly – Bach's material was treated.

The concert opened with some of the most familiar Bach transcriptions – several of Busoni’s piano arrangements of Bach’s Chorale Preludes. When played on an organ, individual stops and the pedals do the “speaking” for each line in the music; on the piano, there is a single keyboard. Busoni’s are not the most difficult to play in terms of note-bashing, but the skill lies in eliciting from the piano the same sense of individual lines as comes out of playing these on the organ, as JSB originally intended. Pianist John Reid made this seem incredibly easy – each line had a distinct voice and dynamic.

Similarly, in the Mozart-arranged preludes, which were interweaved with the same composer’s transcriptions for string quartet of fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier (which, conversely, separated the individual lines on different instruments whilst still – with the quartet’s outstandingly good ensemble – making a cohesive whole), the chorale tunes sung out as though on an entirely different register.

With its inventive programming, the Aurora Orchestra are something of a wild child in the classical music world. But in rebelling against the norm, it also goes against the grain of predictabilitly. Having Busoni’s own composition – the fourth movement from the Violin Sonata no. 2 in E minor – follow the various transcriptions was like having a breather, a change of track, whilst still keeping within the “echoes of Bach” remit. The final movement is a theme-and-variations take on the chorale “Wie wohl ist mir” from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, and Busoni reimagines and reinterprets the theme in sprightly, dark, and mysterious ways before restating the theme once more. Violinist Thomas Gould’s emphatic opening statement, with the deservedly dramatic and delicate turns that followed, made for an entertaining (but certainly not frivolous) performance. Reid’s sensitive accompaniment could not be underestimated.

This particular programme was intelligently conceived, in that every item was a highlight in its own way. For me, and I think for a large portion of the audience, the admittedly unexpected highlight was Kodály’s transcription for unaccompanied viola of the Chromatic Fantasia (as a standalone piece, without, for perfectly understandable reasons, the counterpart fugue). This was a rare chance to hear an instrument so often in the shadow of the other instruments in its family, and Max Baillie’s musical talent and, I think it is fair to say, showmanship, proved the viola’s worth. It was an exquisitely executed rendition, and one which had its audience utterly transfixed.

For something different, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet rounded off the concert. Up to now, it had all been quite sober – this masterpiece came as quite a shock to the system. It was included because the third movement takes “B-A-C-H” and develops a melody from it, which is accompanied by a sarcastically delicate piano waltz. Rather than feeling out-of-character, the quintet fitted in really rather well: for the first time, all five players were involved at once, and it showed the depths and breadths to which composers – even in the recent past – had been inspired by Bach. The swathes of homophony brought the ensemble together on a different level; it goes without saying now that the players pulled it off with their customary precision and musicality.

This was a superb concert, with singular solo and ensemble playing, and an unusual but highly effective combination of Bach-influenced items by composers through the ages.