Johann Sebastian Bach (portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1748, after an original of 1746; photo by Willard Starks)

The Arizona Bach Festival continues its third season of performances through this weekend with an organ recital, a chamber orchestra performance, and last night’s unusual piano duo program of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

When German organist and composer Max Reger arranged the concertos – originally written for various configurations of strings, winds, and harpsichord — for piano four hands between 1905-1906, he was taking another step in a long tradition. Bach often rearranged his own works for different instrumentations, recycling his melodies and themes over the years, and he was one of Reger’s favorite composers; “Bach was his big, big idol,” says pianist Eckart Sellheim. “Bach, Beethoven, Brahms…those three…were Reger’s spiritual and compositional mentors.”

Dian Baker and Eckart Sellheim

A former professor at the University of Michigan and Arizona State University, Sellheim has served on the faculty and as guest lecturer at conservatories across Germany, earning a respected reputation for historical performance accuracy, with a particular interest in the fortepiano (the modern piano’s predecessor). He and his wife, collaborative piano specialist Dian Baker, performed three of the six Brandenburgs last night at Central United Methodist Church.

The appeal of the Brandenburgs is complex, says Sellheim. “It’s this mixture of very recognizable melodies…the rhythm, the incredibly clear structure, and the beauty of the slow movements.” He elaborates, “They’ve become sort of a main staple of the repertory, and many people grew up with them.”

Bach wrote the six concertos in the early 18th century for the noble court in Brandenburg, a northeast German state. Perhaps because of its difficulty, his music languished unheard for over a century, but today it’s nearly as popular as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Max Reger and friend

Max Reger systematically studied Bach’s keyboard works and also created numerous transcriptions and arrangements of music by composers ranging from Bach to Hugo Wolf, his own contemporary. A friend of Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, Reger is sometimes considered the musical link between Brahms and Schoenberg. “He was highly controversial,” says Sellheim. “He ventures out into unknown fields, particularly the piano music, but never crosses the line.”

“You have to realize,” he continues, “it was an incredible time around the turn of the century, 1900 – there was Wolf, and Strauss, and Ravel, and Debussy…they changed the course of music.” Born in 1873, Reger was a renowned organist known as “the second Bach” because of his keyboard skills. His compositions include modulations and structure flirting with 12-tone rows, but looking back to Baroque and Classical styles.

“Reger had no sympathy for the harpsichord,” Sellheim says, “but Bach on the modern piano is really no problem at all – it works very fine.” Reger’s transcriptions are hugely challenging for the performers – according to Sellheim, the composer said he had the “greatest fun” writing them, interweaving complex lines from numerous instruments into just 20 fingers on a single keyboard.

Excerpt from primo part, first movement, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (Bach/arr. Reger)

“It’s fun to play,” he adds, “and as always Bach is so enticing and so interesting, fascinating…not only in the technical and musical aspects, but also rhythm.” Sellheim pauses. “The feeling is always that Bach goes back to the core of music – he makes us clean and clear…it’s so revealing.” He laughs. “The cleaning process makes you sober, if you’re not sober before, and gets you back to the origins…you need to confess something – there is no hiding. Everything is completely open.”

The Festival’s president, Arizona native Scott Youngs, created a seven-year “American Bach” series in his position as director of music at All Saints’ Episcopal Church and Day School. After offering more than 50 cantatas along with Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, he continued by developing the Festival, a non-profit organization with its own board.

“We strive to present Bach’s music in a variety of ways,” says Youngs. “The music is so versatile and today’s taste so eclectic that we don’t feel constricted by any convention. At least one concert each year is slightly ‘off the wall.’” He continues, “This year’s concert for piano four hands…some portions are strictly from Bach’s scoring, and some portions are…through a much more Romantic and contemporary lens. Lots of notes!”

 If you go

Arizona Bach Festival:

  • Friday, January 11, 7:30PM at Central United Methodist Church, 1875 N. Central
    Eckart Sellheim and Dian Baker play Reger’s transcriptions of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos
  • Saturday, January 12, 3PM at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 6300 N. Central
    David Enlow performs a dramatic recital on the Visser tracker organ
  • Sunday, January 13, 3PM at Camelback Bible Church, 3900 E. Stanford Dr., Paradise Valley
    The Festival Chamber Orchestra welcomes violin soloist Stephen Redfield and flute soloist Elizabeth Buck