Many of those attending Accademia Arcadia’s concert were there to hear the only copy of the Cristofori piano in the Southern Hemisphere, others were there to hear the wonders of J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering, and others were attracted by the musical skills of the players. Perhaps most were there for the combination of all three – or four if you consider the intimacy and acoustic benefits of the Primrose Potter Salon.
In a quite lengthy introduction to the performance, the ensemble’s director John O’Donnell provided some illuminating and helpful information regarding both the instrument and the work. Commissioned by Jacqueline Ogeil, founder of Accademia Arcadia, this piano comes with an interesting history. The original was built around 1730 and differs from the modern piano in that it has 54 instead of 88 keys. Harder hammers (in contrast to the plucked strings of the harpsichord that it resembles at first sight) and thinner strings enabled a greater expressive range of colour.
To describe the unique sound of this captivating instrument is well nigh impossible. Without the “twang” of the harpsichord, it still has elements of its timbre. It is soft compared to the pianos that followed, but does have acoustic qualities that we recognise as belonging to that family. While the sound in sections of the Musical Offering played by solo keyboard was reasonably robust, and the details of the intertwining lines distinct in the expert hands of O’Donnell, it tended to be submerged in sections where all four instruments played together. This was particularly evident in the Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale, the penultimate section featuring the flute, where the piano generally receded into the overall texture unless one focussed on it specifically. Of primary importance was the beauty of the instrument whether alone or in ensemble.
Putting the Cristofori piano in the context of piano development and what Bach could have expected from early pianos when he wrote his Musical Offering, O’Donnell explained the role of Gottfried Silbermann (1683 – 1753). A German builder of keyboard instruments, he copied many of Cristofori’s ideas, thus ensuring their survival. Frederick the Great bought several Silbermann instruments, and Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, employed by the King in Potsdam, played Silbermann fortepianos, often accompanying his employer on the flute.
This is what Bach senior would have heard when he visited Potsdam court, where the King challenged him to improvise a six-voice fugue on a long and complex musical theme – one apparently devised by the King but may well have come from Bach’s son. Returning to Leipzig, Bach composed his Musical Offering based on the Thema Regium (King’s theme). O’Donnell’s demonstration of this theme was most helpful in attuning listeners to the complexities of what was to follow as the note sequence was manipulated to encompass all possibilities. Other members of the ensemble – Lucinda Moon (Baroque violin), Greg Dikmans (Baroque flute) and Josephine Vains (Baroque Cello) – also demonstrated some key features of Bach’s ingenious working of the thematic material.
The extended opening Canon perpetuus super Thema Regium for solo keyboard displayed the Cristofori piano’s beauty and capacity for clean articulation. O’Donnell deftly negotiated the intricate interweaving of voices, where a certain melancholy was generated by the repeated chromatic descent that makes up part of the theme.
The following five Canones diversi saw various combinations of instruments, with the all-too-short Violini in Uniso (piano and violin) featuring Lucinda Moon’s refined mastery of the idiom. Using minimal vibrato, her agile facility, precise intonation, rhythmic momentum and calm assurance made her contribution to ensembles a constant delight. Vains provided a reliable cello bass to ensembles while giving a lightness and ease of articulation in faster more complex fugal passages. Dikmans’ flute was sweet and mellifluous throughout. The Sonata sometimes sounded more like a flute concerto in its dominance – something that would have pleased the flute-playing King – but was played with a fine sense of ensemble nevertheless. It was little wonder that Dikmans needed to ease his shoulders during the re-tuning before the final Canone perpetuo – a section that seemed like an extended coda for the Sonata.
Although there is no clear direction as to what instruments should be used for much of Bach’s Musical Offering, the choices used for this performance offered just the right degree of variety, including within the sections for solo piano such as the Ricecar a 6 with its varying tempi and use of spread chords.
One of the most astonishing elements of this performance was the way all four players acted as one, interweaving those complex threads without hesitation in a major feat of concentration and control. An enthusiastic audience left feeling that one of the greatest masterpieces of contrapuntal music had been given its due.
Heather Leviston reviewed “J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering” performed by Accademia Arcadia at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon, on November 8, 2023.