New York Philharmonic Water Music

Cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir“, BWV29 – Sinfonia
Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6/8 (Christmas Concerto)
Organ Concerto in D minor, Op.7/4
Water Music, HWV348-50 – Suite in F; Suite in D; Suite in G

Richard Paré (organ)
Marc Ginsberg & Lisa Kim (violins)
Carter Brey (cello)

New York Philharmonic
Bernard Labadie

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 20 December, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The New York Philharmonic got into the Christmas spirit by offering a programme of Baroque music appropriate to the holiday season with two early-music specialists from Québec City making their New York Philharmonic debuts.

Conductor Bernard Labadie is the music director of Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, both of which he founded over twenty years ago, and organist Richard Paré is a founding member of Les Violons du Roy. Also in solo roles were three members of the Philharmonic, violinists Marc Ginsberg and Lisa Kim and cellist Carter Brey.

The concert opened with the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Cantata, “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” (We thank Thee, God, we thank Thee), a phrase-by-phrase adaptation of the ‘Prelude’ of Bach’s D minor Partita for unaccompanied violin (BWV1006) with the melodic line played by the obbligato organ. This short selection served as a fanfare to introduce the evening’s festivities, but the effect was somewhat diminished by the lack of full resonance at the top of the of the three trumpets’ range.

The most seasonal work on the programme was Corelli’s ‘Christmas Concerto’. The excellent soloists were the Philharmonic’s principal second violin, Marc Ginsberg, that section’s associate principal, Lisa Kim, and principal cellist Carter Brey (who performed from his accustomed seat in the orchestra). Although an ensemble much larger than the composer would have expected accompanied these instruments, Labadie kept the performance sufficiently in balance to avoid losing the work’s chamber-music character. The contrast between slow and fast sections also was well-managed, with the stately Grave that followed the brief opening Vivace and the courtly central Adagio alternating with Allegro and Vivace sections that brimmed with dynamic energy. It was the concluding Largo that took one’s breath away, however. Marked ‘Pastorale’ and based on rustic Italian folk-melodies traditionally played by bagpipers at Christmastime, this music – rendered here with great tenderness – could not help but evoke the gentle beauty of the Nativity scene.

The Handel organ concerto that followed the Corelli was not nearly as successful. Although played idiomatically and skilfully, the concerto was pleasant enough, but seemed little more than alternating opportunities for soloist and orchestra to show off their skills. Paré did impress, however, particularly in the improvisatory central movement.

The undoubted highlight of the evening was the performance of the complete Water Music, offered as three Suites: No.1 featuring the horns, followed by No.3 (flute and piccolo), and No. 2 (trumpets, to which Labadie added timpani). Stylistic differences among performances of this music can be quite substantial. I first heard and loved the Water Music as arranged by Harty and gregariously conducted by Beecham, and later came to admire the more subdued and elegant performance by Eduard van Beinum with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and, later still, Marriner’s airy rendition with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Norrington’s rousing performance with the London Classical Players. I found Labadie’s reading well up to those standards. As earlier in the Corelli concerto, he succeeded in keeping the scale of the orchestral sound at just the right level to bring out the true nature of the music.

The ‘Horn Suite’, the longest of the three, opened with an Overture that offered a very pleasing blend of strings and woodwinds and featured fine solo work by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and, once again, Marc Ginsberg. In the ensuing Adagio, principal oboe Liang Wang’s solo drew out the melodic line as the strings provided gentle counterpoint. Principal horn Philip Myers was outstanding in the Allegro that followed, with the horns taking centre-stage in this movement and a later Minuet. The rest of the orchestra also had an opportunity to shine, the woodwinds joining in a deliciously contrapuntal passage to open the suite’s finale. There was also much delightful playing in the ‘Flute Suite’, with flute solos by associate principal Sandra Church and Helen Campo on piccolo.

The trumpets, led by principal Phillip Smith, opened the concluding ‘Trumpet Suite’ with a fanfare and then merrily alternated phrases with the horns until a solo violin eingang introduced the return of the hornpipe, in which the alternation of horns and trumpets continued. Labadie made effective use of timpani to give the trumpet passages added impact. The trumpet-and-drum combination also added a majestic touch to the penultimate Lentement, a graceful movement featuring a fairly dense and low string texture, as well as to the Bourrée that brought the concert to a joyous conclusion.

It is quite astounding how seldom the works on this programme have been played by the Philharmonic. Indeed, the orchestra has previously played neither the Bach nor the Handel organ concerto (although the first and last movements of the concerto were included in a Young People’s Concert in 1938). But even the well-known Corelli (last played 54 years ago, under Bruno Walter) and Handel’s complete Water Music (played only once before, in 1971, with Michael Tilson Thomas, although Pierre Boulez went on to record Water Music for CBS/Sony) have been surprisingly absent from Philharmonic programmes. Maestro Labadie’s visit, bringing this important and enjoyable repertory to New York Philharmonic audiences again, was a most welcome one.

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