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The program in Talley Ballroom was entitled, simply, “The Bachs.” There on the North Carolina State University campus on a bracing Sunday afternoon, conductor Randolph Foy and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra re-established the fact that Johann Sebastian was not the only Bach who could compose fine music. Featured along with the great man himself were his three sons and his lesser-known contemporary cousin.
As soon as the players struck up the first movement of eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sinfonia in F (c.1740), it was evident that here was no work by the senior Bach. The orchestration by the strings and continuo sounded almost “modern” by comparison with earlier baroque numbers. When this “incipient symphony” (Foy’s term) reached its closing movement, a Minuet, the son then reverted much to the style of the father.
The whole complement of strings, woodwinds, and continuo were called upon for youngest son Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in G minor (1766). In his excellent program notes, Foy pointed out that this piece was greatly admired by the young Mozart. He further advised that all of these Sinfonias constituted early versions of the symphonic form that exists today.
Perhaps the best known of the Bach sons was the middle one, Carl Philipp Emanuel (popularly referred to as C.P.E.). Here, in the Sinfonia in D (1776), the players were augmented by timpani and the woodwinds were prominently featured, particularly the flutes in the Largo movement. The musicians did themselves proud with a full-throated sound, much like that of later compositions. (Given its notable publication date, this piece could well have been chosen to help celebrate the birth of a great nation half a world away.)
Slightly older cousin Johannes Bernard Bach opened the second half of the program with one movement from his Overture in G (c.1730). This piece featured the fine baroque violin sound of Lindi Wang, along with flutes and bassoons.
This part of the program was largely dedicated to the work of J.S. Bach himself. Instrumental movements from four of his numerous sacred cantatas took the hearer right into the cathedral. In each case one half-expected the choir and organ to “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light” at any moment. Particularly intriguing was the overture to Cantata 18, in which the violins were silent, being replaced by the flutes, all bolstered by the violas and lower strings. The first-rate violin solo work by Wang was again on display in Cantata 209.
True “vintage” Bach was evident with Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G (1721). The eighteen string players seemed comfortable with, and well prepared for, this familiar workhorse. The powerful support of Tom Koch on continuo should be recognized, performing as he did in this and indeed all the works of the afternoon.
The presentation was artistic and educational. It provided valuable insight into the lives of perhaps the foremost music family of all time. It is unlikely that anyone could have left that hall without an enhanced appreciation for the forebears of great music.