Tuesday October 30, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Is this how Bach might have done it?

It’s an obvious question when someone arranges a Bach work for a different instrument or set of instruments. Case in point: harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper’s arrangement of the second set of keyboard inventions for an ensemble of seven. The reworking seemed to prove the old adage about less being more.

Cooper and the Berkshire Bach Ensemble premiered his new version Sundayafternoon as part of a complete performance of the 30 inventions. The concert, in the First Congregational Church, opened the Berkshire Bach Society season.

Like Bach’s "Well-tempered Clavier" and "Art of the Fugue," his two sets of keyboard inventions can be taken as a treatise on the possibilities of the form as well as a source of pleasure.

Each set of 15 miniatures, like the "Well-tempered Clavier," runs through a cycle of keys, from C Major to B minor.

Cooper’s idea was to play the two-part inventions (the first set) as written, on the harpsichord.

He then dressed up the three-part inventions for a chamber ensemble to color and highlight the different voices.

"These versions will allow us all to experience, even more deeply than the original keyboard settings, the intended range of character, emotion, design, color and contrapuntal fantasy," he wrote in a program note.

It didn’t seem to work out that way.

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In the first set, Cooper’s keyboard fluency not only gave due weight to the two answering voices -- he described them as a "conversation" -- but also found a striking variety of colors and moods in the 15 miniatures. The D minor, for example, was stormy and dramatic, while the E Major and F minor were tinged with melancholy.

The F Major had brightness worthy of Handel. The closing B minor became a solemn march.

For the three-part inventions, Cooper enlisted a violinist, violist, cellist, flutist, English horn player and bassoonist to join him. All played modern instruments. Some arrangements were for strings and harpsichord, some for winds and harpsichord, some for the whole ensemble.

The playing was irreproachable, but two of the 15 pieces jumped out with startling effect. They were for harpsichord alone.

In these pieces Cooper’s playing took on the clarity, crispness and attention to mood that had animated the first set.

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Surrounding these flights were arrangements that tended to blur rather than heighten the contrasting voices. Some re-imaginings were effective, such as a gently rolling pastorale played by muted strings.

But the long, flowing lines of the modern instruments often made textures dense or heavy.

The effect was of not-quite-Bach "Brandenburg" concertos and aria accompaniments. You had to wonder if period instruments might not have done it better.