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Music Review

Aston Magna opens with Bach family affair

The son got top billing, but there was never a real question who the family superstar was at the Aston Magna Music Festival opener.

“C.P.E. Bach 300th Birthday Celebration and J.S. Bach’s ‘A Musical Offering’,” performed Thursday at Brandeis University, featured three works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88) and one by his father, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750). That last one brought the audience to laughter and cheers.

The concert kicked off the 42d summer season of the country’s longest-running festival performed on period instruments. Peter Sykes was on fortepiano throughout the night, teasing out a remarkable range of dynamics and color from the 18th-century version of the modern-day powerhouse.


After providing two of the four voices in C.P.E. Bach’s Quartet in D major for Flute, Viola and Keyboard (the fourth is often played by cello), Sykes was joined by Aston Magna artistic director Daniel Stepner in the Fantasia for Harpsichord and Violin in F-sharp minor.

Here was role reversal: Rather than the usual violinist-as-soloist to keyboard support, the fortepiano was the clear lead. The two played in tight synch navigating the darting musical interjections and meandering style Carl Philipp explored as he pulled away from his father’s sternly structured Baroque aesthetic toward a looser, more Romantic one.

After C.P.E.’s Sonata in F major for Bass Recorder, Viola, and Continuo — a serving of rich sonorities between low instrumental voices — and intermission, it was time for Papa Bach’s “Musikalisches Opfer” (“Musical Offering”), based on a theme handed to him by Frederick II of Prussia. The stage filled with viola de gamba, Baroque flute, and two violins/viola, which attacked the parade of canons, fugue, and chromatic intrigue.

This was organic, bare-knuckle playing, with pulsing tempos and intonation that has little in common with today’s digitally mastered uniformity. The audience responded with chuckles at impish movement endings, and gasps at virtuosic flourishes. The patriarch ruled.


Four 2014 Aston Magna festival programs remain, each to be performed at Brandeis and two other venues: Winds of Romanticism, June 26-28; Music From a Turbulent 17th Century England, July 3-5; Vice Squad: Baroque Skirmishes with Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee and Love, July 10-12; and Italian Trio Sonatas and a New Work, “Aston Magna,” by Nico Muhly, July 17-19.

Thomasine Berg can be reached at berg.thomasine@gmail.com.