The Weapons of Rhetoric | Bach Akademie Australia

Image by Australian Digital Concert Hall

Bringing together spoken language and instrumental music under the theme of rhetoric illuminates the forms’ similar concerns of pace, rhythm, voice, and flow in constructing a whole performance piece. The study of rhetoric as argument and persuasion was popular in comparison and unison with composition during the 18th century and, as such, in this concert, Bach Akademie Australia illustrates the literary influence of rhetoric on a range of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Guiding the audience through the program and its exploration of rhetoric were guest speakers performer and writer Jonathan Biggins and Jonathan Horton QC. Together, the two presented the meaning, history, and application of rhetoric as a tool for both speech and music before handing over to Bach Akademie Australia to demonstrate what a musical rhetoric could look like. The program included a wide range of compositions from Bach’s oeuvre with a focus on some of his more unique and technical pieces that play with instrumental voice and group conversation.

The opening piece “Sonata No. 2 for Viola de Gamba and Harpsichord BWV 1028” started the concert off slowly with a tension between the low, long notes of Laura Vaughan’s viola da gamba and the high, short notes of Neal Peres Da Costa’s harpsichord. The dissonance was soon rectified in the third movement before the pace picked up into something more frantic in the final movement. This piece worked well as a warm-up to introduce a concert with some unusual instrument pairings and unfamiliar compositions and techniques.

For example, a crowd favourite was Madeleine Easton’s solo performance of the “Adagio” and “Fugue” from “Sonata No. 1 in G minor BWV 1001” in which she demonstrated Bach’s compositional skill to transform a monosyllabic instrument into a polyphonic one with multiple voices in the piece. Similarly, the ten puzzle canons from “Musical Offering BWV 1079” was technically very impressive as Easton explained how Bach used repeated lines of music played upside-down, backwards, or reversed between instruments as a kind of puzzle or musical experiment for players and listeners alike. Stand-out canons from this set included “Canon 3. a 2 per Motum contrarium” between the sweet flute played by Mikaela Oberg and Da Costa’s faultless harpsichord and “Canon 9. Canon a 2 Quaerendo invenietis” where Da Costa’s hands mirrored each other in a rising and descending dance across the keys.

The spirit of conversation or voices joined in agreement or disagreement could be seen in nearly every chosen piece with varying approaches. In “Ricercar a 6” from also from “Musical Offering BWV 1079”, the melody began with one instrument and was slowly picked up by each performer until they were all playing. This worked beautifully to illustrate the unique quality and voice of each instrument before building to their sound in unison. At the same time, Judy Tarling noted in the program notes the shared interest in repetition between music and rhetoric as a device to add emphasis or to shift emotional tones in a performance. In “Ricercar a 6”, a repeated motif permeated the composition and generated a sense of ascending complexity as the instruments’ voices became more deeply entwined.

Two pieces in particular merged the technical interest in Bach’s musical rhetoric and the simple pleasure of beautiful playing. “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051” opened with a lively and bright first movement before moving into a slower second and finishing on a bouncing, joyous third movement dominated by the pairings of the harpsichord and Anthea Cottee’s cello and the playful violas played by Karina Schmitz and John Ma. The energy of this performance was high and it was wonderful to see the rhythm so infect the players as to bring smiles to their playing faces. The closing piece, “Concerto for 2 violins in D minor BWV 1043”, recalled the liveliness of the earlier piece but with a refined elegance and a particularly passionate performance by Julia Fredersdorff on the violin and in spirited conversation with Easton’s violin, too.

The Weapons of Rhetoric was both thematically balanced between contemporary interpretations of Bach’s compositions and influences from the world of rhetoric as well as balanced in performance between the technically impressive and the beautiful. In this concert in particular, Bach Akademie Australia demonstrated their expertise and understanding of both their craft and their love of Bach’s work especially.

The Weapons of Rhetoric was performed at Our Lady of Dolours Church on June 12th

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