The Academy of Ancient Music is not an academy. Formed in 1973, the pioneering early music ensemble is anything but ancient. And the AAM was no orchestra Wednesday night, making its Walt Disney Concert Hall debut playing Bach’s Four Orchestral Suites. The British band mustered at most 14 players on stage. For the Second Suite, there were but seven.
The instruments were 18th-century valveless trumpets, piercing oboes, pungent bassoon, tiny timpani, mellow flute, gut strings and harpsichord. The size of the ensemble, one player to a part, presumably reflects what had been at Bach’s disposal. The tuning was a full tone lower than what we are accustomed to today, creating a less brilliant, darkening effect on every note it touched.
Maybe this is what Bach heard, but I doubt it. The performances led by harpsichordist Richard Egarr were muscular and vigorous in a way suited to 21st-century urban sensibilities, emphasizing harshness over lushness or even clarity. Disney, with its modern feel, modern and unforgiving acoustics and big orchestra size, was not the kind of intimate space in which Bach would have played his instrumental music.
The result was Bach coming across as today’s music. Had the program claimed these were Bach arrangements by Edgar Varèse, I might have fallen for it. It seemed that radical, even for the AAM.
This so-called academy was founded by harpsichordist and conductor Christopher Hogwood. He made hundreds of recordings with the AAM and was hugely influential in giving Baroque music new life. Hogwood, who died in September, became one of the first early music stars and headed his ensemble for 33 years. His 1998 recording of the four Bach suites, rhythmically incisive and displaying startlingly clear textures, remains one of the best of many.
Entering Disney on Wednesday I was disappointed to open the program and not see it dedicated to Hogwood, a once-frequent visitor to Los Angeles and occasional guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the performance itself was very different in spirit than a Hogwood one. Egarr, who succeeded Hogwood eight years ago, is after something, at the same time more ancient and more contemporary.
There is no one way to play or think about these suites, each a big overture followed by a collection of Baroque dance movements. Bach left no final manuscripts of the set, if it even was meant to be a set. The instrumentation varies in each suite (but we cannot always be certain of some details). The Second is well known because it is basically a concerto for solo flute and strings. The Third is popular because its slow movement has become known as the “Air on the G String” and features one of Bach’s uniquely inspired melodies.
Presentations of the suites have, through history, followed performance fashions. Mahler made elaborate orchestrations of the Bach suites, which Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Phil recorded around the same time Hogwood made his CD of what was thought then the original way of doing the suites. Oddly, the Mahler sounded more, if wonderfully, archaic than the Hogwood. The marvel of our ears is that they perceive time as the fourth dimension, apart from historical chronology.
And so we have Egarr newer and older, played in a more modern hall than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Salonen conducted Bach.
Indeed, Egarr’s Bach played off Varèse’s “Amériques,” which Salonen conducted only a couple of days earlier in Disney. The AAM trumpets in the two D Major suites — the Third, which opened the program and the Fourth, which closed it — had the airy, tonally unpredictable, raw natural brassiness that many composers over the past 100 years have tried to mimic for special effects. They are so difficult to control that they appear to have their own uncertainty principle when it comes to pitch and tone, although this trio was stellar.
The flute and the strings have thin tones. The Air of the Third Suite, as played by violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, had a ghostly quality. Rachel Brown gave the bouncing Badinerie that ends the Second the admirable attributes of folk flute. The oboes and bassoon in the First Suite slid into harmonies as though they were synthesizers.
Egarr goes in for speed and heavily accented beats, especially when there is syncopation involved, as there often is in Bach. He reminds you why Bach has always been so popular with jazz musicians. The older the approach to Bach, he seemed to be saying, the jazzier. His harpsichord wasn’t distinctly audible much of the evening, but it supplied a crunchiness to the sound, and crunch, of course, can be yet another sign in our day of freshness.
Egarr and AAM have just released a recording of the Bach suites on the ensemble’s own label. That’s yet another story — another (close-up) acoustic, another more formal, less chance-taking approach. It is to be commended for its originality but also for reminding us that Bach, like jazz, can never be pinned down.