May 21, 2014

Bach Ahead by re:mix – A Review


An edited version of this article appeared in the Straits Times on 20 May 2014 with the heading ‘Playful, spirited Bach’.

re:mix, Foo Say Ming, director/violin, Lim Yan, piano
Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday 18 May 2014

For a group that is known for their rather adventurous and eclectic concert programmes, re:mix’s programme this time seemed more ordinary than usual: a Bach-themed evening. But perhaps they were trying to prove the versatility of Bach’s music – that it can be taken and orchestrated or arranged for virtually any combination of instruments and transcend culture and genres, still remaining accessible to all.

Leopold Stokowski’s richly-scored transcription of Bach’s Aria from his Orchestral Suite in D Major, BWV 1068, more commonly known as the ‘Air on a G String’ opened the concert with the cellos singing out the melody soulfully while accompanied by the pizzicato notes from a solo double bass. Because of the small size of the ensemble and the tempo selected, re:mix handled this arrangement charmingly, seamlessly passing the melody line to and fro between the cellos and first violins without the excessiveness and overwrought sentimentality usually associated with Stokowski’s arrangements.

Director Foo Say Ming then took the spotlight in Bach’s Fourth Violin Sonata in C Minor BWV 1017 from the set of six sonatas for Violin and Keyboard, accompanied by Lim Yan on the piano. Rather than the role of accompaniment, however, the keyboard meets in equal terms with the violin, the keyboardist’s right hand as if taking on the part of another solo treble instrument, and the left, the part of the basso continuo. In the opening siciliano, the warm, mellifluous tone of Foo’s violin floated gently above the undulating waves of accompanying semiquavers, beautifully and elegantly shaped by Lim. In the slower middle movement however, as Lim worked to create a pastel blend of colours on the piano, Foo sounded almost bored and a little impatient. The second and fourth movements were delightfully fast. Both Lim and Foo performed with youthful vigour, exchanging playful banter. The presence of a pulse was always well-defined, but never rigid. Foo was not afraid to use touches of rubato in places, and Lim was always at one with him, sensitive to the balance and pedalling with subtlety.

The highlight of the evening was Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra. Mendelssohn had been instrumental in the revival and promotion of Bach’s music in the 1800s, and Bach’s influence can be heard throughout this work. Foo and Lim were much bolder, and delivered a spirited performance, revelling in one another’s musicianship in the miniature romantic quasi-character pieces that Mendelssohn writes in between orchestral episodes. The ensemble was also ably led by concert mistress Lee Shi Mei when the soloists were busy handling the technically demanding figurations.

In the composition of this concerto, Mendelssohn bridges the old and the new, not unlike re:mix’s continuing efforts in bridging the gap between classical music and popular culture.

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