Brandenburg Concertos from New York

Bach
Brandenburg Concertos:
No.1 in F, BWV1046
No.3 in G, BWV1048
No.2 in F, BWV1047
No.5 in D, BWV1050
No.4 in G, BWV1049
No.6 in B flat, BWV1051

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:

Ida Kavafian (violin)
Erin Keefe (violin)
Daniel Phillips (violin)
Arnaud Sussmann (violin)
Beth Guterman (viola)
Teng Li (viola)
Paul Neubauer (viola)
Julie Albers (cello)
David Finckel (cello)
Fred Sherry (cello)
Kurt Muroki (double bass)
John Gibbons (harpsichord)
Tara Helen O’Connor (flute)
Ransom Wilson (flute)
Randall Ellis (oboe)
Mark Hill (oboe)
Stephen Taylor (oboe)
Peter Kolkay (bassoon)
Angela Cordell (horn)
Stewart Rose (horn)
David Washburn (trumpet)


Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 17 December, 2006
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, New York City

Earlier this month, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center launched its first holiday Baroque Festival – which is planned as an annual event – with an Alice Tully Hall concert of music by Telemann, Handel, J.S. Bach, Marin Marais and Vivaldi. It also included two Bach Cello Suite masterclasses at Lincoln Center’s Rose Rehearsal Studio and performances of six Bach Violin Sonatas and the complete Bach Cello Suites, both at the Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church. The festival now concludes with two sold-out performances at Alice Tully Hall of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, continuing an annual tradition begun in 1993.

The Society generally uses modern instruments rather than employing an early-music, period-instrument approach. Thus, the horns in the First Brandenburg were valved instruments, as was the trumpet in the Second, and transverse flutes were used in the Second, Fourth and Fifth concertos. However, violinist Daniel Phillips did play a violino piccolo (tuned a third higher than a full-sized instrument) in the First Brandenburg. John Gibbons played the harpsichord and Kurt Muroki the double bass in all six concertos to provide the basso continuo (sometimes aided by cello or bassoon). Tempos were generally brisk and rubato minimal throughout, resulting in uniformly energetic and upbeat performances.

The First Brandenburg Concerto employed the largest ensemble, with the solo violino piccolo, three oboes and two horns supported by two violins, viola, cello, double bass, bassoon and harpsichord. The combined sound of the oboes was quite lovely and the pair of horns produced a mellow tone suggestive of the hunt. A strong bass line was provided by Fred Sherry (cello), Muroki (double bass) and Peter Kolkay (bassoon), along with Gibbons’s harpsichord. The second movement Adagio featured lyrical oboe solos by Stephen Taylor and violin passages by Phillips, who in the succeeding Allegro produced an entirely different sonority with his three-quarter size, scordatura-tuned instrument accompanying the horns and oboes. The fourth movement Minuet, with its two wind trios – the first for horns and bassoon and the second for horns and oboes – separated by a Polonaise section for strings, was full of contrasting timbres, rhythms and tempos.

The Third concerto was energetically played by three violins, three violas, three cellos, double bass and harpsichord. Ida Kavafian excelled in the first violin part as did first violist Paul Neubauer, particularly in the second movement. Gibbons’s harpsichord came through nicely, but he did not provide an improvisation between the movements; the strings merely played the chords written in the score.

The Second Brandenburg featured a concertino of flute, oboe, trumpet and violin and a ripieno and basso continuo consisting of two violins, viola and cello, double bass and harpsichord. David Washburn played the brilliant trumpet part flawlessly, his clarion tones blending nicely with Ransom Wilson’s flute, Taylor’s oboe and Erin Keefe’s solo violin. The fugal Allegro assai brought the first half of the programme to a joyous end.

The concert resumed with the Fifth Brandenburg, in which a trio of solo instruments – harpsichord (Gibbons) flute (Tara Helen O’Connor) and violin (Phillips) – was accompanied by a single violin, viola, cello and double bass. This was the first work ever to feature the harpsichord as a prominent solo instrument, and Gibbons played the florid first movement cadenza with fluency and driving energy, eschewing almost all rubato. The three solo instruments took the delicate second movement, marked Affetuoso, at a relaxed and unhurried pace, with the harpsichord doing double duty as both a solo and continuo instrument. In the bouncy, fugal final Allegro, however, the harpsichord was distinctly in a lead role, with lots of trills and scales, and an extended solo passage, contrasting with the bright timbres of the flute and solo violin.

The Fourth concerto was next, with expressive playing by flautists Wilson and O’Connor and violinist Kavafian, who ran through the passagework in the opening Allegro with incredible dexterity and sensitive phrasing. In the Andante, the flutes took the lead with a melancholic, falling theme, supported by the solo violin, a ripieno of two violins and a viola, with cello, double bass and harpsichord as basso continuo. The concluding fugue is one of the most memorable of Bach’s many compositions in this form, and the Society’s musicians did not disappoint, with Kavafian’s virtuosity again at the forefront in rapid figures, ascending and descending scales, and tremolos.

The Sixth concerto was performed last, although it was the first of the Brandenburgs that Bach composed. It is scored for two violas (Neubauer and Li), two viola da gambas (performed on cellos by Julie Albers and David Finckel), cello (Sherry), double bass (Muroki) and harpsichord (Gibbons). The canonic playing of the violas in the opening movement, which bears no tempo indication, provided an interesting change from both the timbres and melodic lines that had predominated in the other concertos. The real highlight of the concerto, however, was the ensuing Adagio ma non tanto, with Li’s beautifully melodic opening solo, soon echoed a fifth higher by Neubauer, providing a deep, rich sonority that was very moving. Sherry’s excellent playing of the cello line also served to enhance and solidify the movement’s low textures. In the concluding fugal Allegro, the violas playfully tossed thematic material back and forth, with Sherry’s cello sometimes joining in the syncopated fun.



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