Guest review by Doug Thomas
On 1 May 2019, the Royal Albert Hall dedicated a full evening to the music of J.S. Bach. The event, entitled Bach Evolution, was part of Deutsche Grammophon (DG)’s 120th birthday, and presented three of the most exciting figures in contemporary classical and electronic music: Vikingur Ólafsson, Peter Gregson and Clark.
Ólafsson, whom most of us have discovered through his first hugely successful release with DG, Philip Glass: Piano Works, has recently received the BBC Recording of the Year award as well as the Instrumental award for his latest album with DG, Johann Sebastian Bach. I was particularly excited to hear and see him. Ólafsson’s interpretation of Bach is incredible; the clarity of the articulation, the independence of the voices, the bouncing of each note – recalling Gould – all performed with modesty and elegance. The Icelandic pianist’s set was as diverse as his album; presented as an open canvas during his introductory speech, it included a pulsating Prelude in C minor, an angelic arrangement of the Prelude in E Minor by Siloti and a divine Widerstehe doch der Sünde, transcribed by Ólafsson.
Last year, Gregson took the challenge of recomposing Bach’s Six Cello Suites. The result, released by DG through their Recomposed Series, is a captivating set of double interpretations, where the composer turns around each suite to show different aspects of it. With his cello sextet (and an additional synth) Gregson performed a selection of movements of the suites that reflected both the purity of the original compositions and the modernism of the Scottish composer. It was very interesting to see how Gregson’s approach is very close to Bach’s; the cellist isolated motifs out of each suite and played around them, extracting all the musical material contained in it.
The real surprise of the evening was the electronic musician Clark’s participation. The outsider of the trio presented a set that would have started a riot a few centuries ago. Through a Zappa-esque premiere performance, the English musician (joined by composer and producer Olly Coates) deconstructed Bach’s music, including parts of the French Suites. The result was a sonic musical potpourri that tore, stretched, compressed, mistreated and distorted the music of the Baroque composer, through real time sequencing and looping. Part of the audience felt uncomfortable, dazzle, and decided to leave the venue, while the remainder enjoyed Clark’s avant-gardism and novelty performance.
The hall might have been half empty at the end of the evening – due to Clark’s provocative performance – but it will certainly be full next time Ólafsson, Gregson or Clark returns. Whether it is through a flawless performance, a modern reinterpretation or a violent destruction, Bach continues to fascinate musicians and listeners.
When one is tired of Bach, he is tired of life.
Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.
(header image: RAH)