The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall – Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos

The Brandenburg Concertos, BWV1046-1051
No.1 in F
No.2 in F
No.3 in G
No.4 in G
No.5 in D
No.6 in B-flat

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [Hyeyeon Park (harpsichord), Stella Chen, Ani Kavafian & Richard Lin (violins), Daniel Phillips (violin/piccolo violin), Arnaud Sussmann (violin/viola),  Lawrence Dutton & Matthew Lipman (violas), Timothy Eddy, Mihai Marica & Keith Robinson (cellos), Anthony Manzo (double bass), Demarre McGill & Tara Helen O’Connor (flutes), Randall Ellis, James Austin Smith & Stephen Taylor (oboes), Peter Kolkay (bassoon), David Byrd-Marrow & Tanner West (horns) and David Washburn (trumpet)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 17 December, 2023
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The CMS has presented the complete Brandenburg Concertos every holiday season since 1993,  each year in a different order and with different musicians. With seasoned veterans playing alongside younger artists concertizing them for the first time, and a different player taking the lead in each work, a lively chemistry is usually at play, as it was on this occasion.

The pieces were played in numerical order. Except for the cellists and harpsichordist, the performers stood while playing, allowing for a great deal of animation. With groups facing each other – strings mostly on stage-right, horns and winds left – players could easily exchange visual cues. The musicians enjoyed themselves throughout the evening.

Concerto No.1 is the only one with four movements, and with thirteen players, it employs the largest ensemble. It also has the most woodwinds – three oboes and a bassoon – and is the only one with French horns (two). The score calls for a piccolo violin, a higher-pitched violin of the Baroque period, here vigorously played by Daniel Phillips. The best playing came in the Menuet-Trio-Polonaise Finale. With James Austin Smith and Randall Ellis’s nimble oboe work and Peter Kolkay’s elegant bassoon notes, the Trio was gorgeous, as was the playing of the larger ensemble.

In the Second Brandenburg, David Washburn’s triumphant trumpet shone in its solo stretches and blended well with the other musicians when required, not only with the other soloists – Stella Chen’s violin, Tara Helen O’Connor’s flute and Stephen Taylor’s oboe – but with the whole ensemble. With the trumpet soaring above, the high energy and bright tones of the final Allegro assai sounded especially wonderful.

In the Third Concerto – the shortest and most homogenous-sounding of the six – three violins, three violas and three cellos alternate playing solo and ensemble parts over the harpsichord continuo line. Phillips appended a short cadenza to the two-chord linking movement. As the melodies passed among the sections and soloists, tight ensemble playing was the order of the evening, with Phillips’s contributions  especially enchanting.

After intermission came Concerto No.4  featuring Richard Lin’s enthralling violin and Tara Helen O’Connor and Demarre McGill’s finely matched flutes which gracefully danced around their melodies throughout but were most light-footed in the final movement, where the violin sparkled in passages of  dazzling virtuosity.

The Fifth is the only Brandenburg Concerto in which the harpsichord plays solo. In a stunning rendering of the cadenza near the end of the first movement, Hyeyeon Park successfully conveyed all the drama and intensity of the intricate music. Particularly captivating were the exchanges between Ana Kavafian’s violin and Demarre McGill’s flute in the ensuing Affetuoso.

The Sixth Concerto calls for the oddest instrumental ensemble of all: two solo violas, a cello, a double bass, two violas da gamba (here performed on cellos), and harpsichord. With no violins, the violas’ virtuosic lines predominated, in a highly animated account delivered by Lawrence Dutton and Matthew Lipman. The artists’ enjoyment was plainly evident up to and through the superfast Allegro Finale, which brought an end to this festive concert.

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