Hearing Bach re-imagined makes it clear why he still reigns supreme

Between the delights of reconstructed sonatas and Thomas Gould's "violin hair", the paradoxically intricate simplicity of Bach shone in Baroque Encounters.

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It was the American billionaire and composer Gordon Getty, of all people, who best summed up the way we think about Bach. “I do not think that music keeps evolving,” he said. “It evolved through Bach; since then, in my humble opinion, all the innovations added nothing.” For many music enthusiasts, particularly those of early music, the paradoxically intricate simplicity of Bach cannot be improved on. Every time you hear an especially good account of the Goldberg Variations, or a rendition of an aria from the St John Passion that makes your heart hurt, you find yourself slipping further towards Getty’s point of view.

Yet the violinist Thomas Gould and the pianist-composer Gwilym Simcock staunchly disagree. Both often engage in unusual, genre-crossing performance, and both are as active in contemporary music as they are in the classical repertoire (Simcock is probably better known for his jazz work). For the eighth edition of the Baroque Unwrapped season at Kings Place this year, they turned their attention to Bach, devising what they describe as a series of “encounters” with the composer.

Wisely, they chose to begin and end their programme (21 April) with the unadulterated original – Bach’s Violin Sonatas No 1 and No 4. What happened in between, as Gould explained before they started playing, was a “journey” from the known quantity of the first sonata into the unknown, followed by a return “home” to the No 4. Their interpretation of the Bach compositions showed some confident, nuanced playing, though the latent early-music purist in me did tut silently at the contrast of the bright tones from the Steinway grand that Simcock was playing with the mellow roundness of Gould’s 1782 J B Guadagnini violin.

What followed was a dismantling and reassembling of some of Bach’s best-known themes, most notably from the cantatas “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” and ­“Jesus bleibet meine Freude”. Simcock found new, crunchy overtones to add to Bach’s harmonies and drew out melodies and syncopations hitherto only hinted at in the original. His relaxed and easy playing style belied the complexity of what he was doing. His manner and movement might have been at home in a jazz club, but the sheets of music he was getting through hinted at the scale of the compositional work that lay behind the apparently improvised work – a very Bach-type contradiction.

Gould’s playing was more adaptable and fluid. At times, he launched into flourishes reminiscent of a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band; elsewhere, he reeled like a fiddler in a folk group. Throughout, he used the full range of his instrument, double-stopping across the strings for a more rhythm’n’ blues-style passage, or interspersing delicate pizzicato while Simcock took the melody. Despite having what I can only call “violinist hair” and the stage demeanour that goes with it, musically Gould is affecting and engaging.

The communication between the two musicians was constant; the genial atmosphere they produced offered a welcome deviation from the rigid way in which early music is all too often performed. Both performers chatted to the audience at the start, explaining how the programme was going to work and what they hoped the result would be. Consequently, everyone knew what to expect and when you were supposed to clap. People felt free to vocalise their recognition of a theme they recognised emerging from the texture, or to clap spontaneously mid-piece at a solo passage they appreciated. The atmosphere was more jazz club than concert hall, and it was delightful.

For all the interest and originality of the Gould and Simcock “encounters”, the best thing you can say about them – and it really is the best – is that at times it was impossible to tell what was Bach and what was not. After such a riot of inventiveness, you might worry whether a centuries-old sonata might not sound flat or stale by comparison, but as Gould navigated the last flourishes at the end of the final movement, you wondered no more.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred