Bach Festival concerts boast smouldering intensity and "the Kama Sutra of counterpoint"

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      An Early Music Vancouver presentation, as part of the Vancouver Bach Festival. At Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday and Wednesday, August 2 and 3. Continues until August 12

      A festival-producer friend likes to say that she programs for three things: excellence, diversity, and range. The first of those is self-explanatory, of course, but she differentiates the other two by defining diversity as a matter of social inclusiveness, and range as an openness to different styles of aesthetic expression.

      Using those parameters, the Vancouver Bach Festival necessarily scores low on diversity: in this inaugural manifestation, it is by nature exclusive, concentrating on the compositions and world-view of a single northern European composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. But the event, as produced by Early Music Vancouver, has already established a high benchmark with its first two events, which individually approached perfection and together encompassed a huge range of musical brilliance.

      Performers Dan Tepfer, who opened the festival by interspersing calmly focused readings of Bach's Goldberg Variations with wildly imaginative improvisations on the same, and Davitt Moroney, who offered a scholarly take on The Art of the Fugue for the event's second night, could not be more different. Movie-star handsome and dressed casually in subdued colours and stripy socks, Tepfer said little but brought smouldering physical intensity to his set; like the jazz musician he is at heart, he danced along with the music, whether it was Bach's or his own response to the great German's score.

      Moroney, in contrast, was donnish and clean-cut in a trim suit, and he treated his night as a kind of lecture-demonstration, presenting long, clear, and witty explanations of Bach's contrapuntal techniques alongside crisp performances of the music under discussion.

      Thanks to Moroney, this listener will never again listen to The Art of the Fugue without thinking of it as "the Kama Sutra of counterpoint". The harpsichordist's mildly risqué comparison was given flesh by his subtly emotional playing, which spotlighted the sensuality that lurks behind the mathematical brilliance of Bach's jigsaw-puzzle mind. The Art's double, triple, and even quadruple lines slid above and beneath and all around each other in uncommonly audible form-and in both the second of the two "mirror" fugues, "Contrapunctus XIII", and the concluding "Fuga a 3 Soggetti", Moroney even achieved something like a state of grace, spinning weightless lines with near-magical agility.

      Sensuality and rhythmic intelligence were even more to the fore in Tepfer's opening-night performance. I'll still reach for my Glenn Gould recordings when I want to hear The Goldberg Variations at home-but, again, my understanding of Bach has been forever changed by the way that Tepfer restored both improvisation and a sense of the dance to music that was born out of those very qualities.

      Thank you, Mr. Tepfer. Thank you, Mr. Moroney. And thank you, Early Music Vancouver, for launching the first of what I hope will be many Bach Festivals in such an auspicious way.