No.1 in F, BWV1046
No.2 in F, BWV1047
No.3 in G, BWV1048
No.4 in G, BWV1049
No.5 in D, BWV1050
No.6 in B flat, BWV1051
John Gibbons (harpsichord), Bella Hristova, Ani Kavafian & Erin Keefe (violins), Daniel Phillips (piccolo violin & violin), Mark Holloway, Paul Neubauer & Richard O’Neill (violas), David Finckel, Jakob Koranyi & Fred Sherry (cellos), Edgar Meyer (double bass), Tara Helen O’Connor, Paula Robison & Ransom Wilson (flutes), Randall Ellis, Mark Hill & Stephen Taylor (oboes), Peter Kolkay (bassoon), Stewart Rose & William Ver Meulen (horns) and David Washburn (piccolo trumpet)
Reviewed by: Violet Bergen
Reviewed: 13 December, 2009
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are probably the greatest example of underappreciated commodities that eventually achieved renown. Bach sent these compositions to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 as part of a job application, but the Margrave did not hire Bach, and the works remained neglected in the Margrave’s library for years. Fast-forward two and a half centuries to 1977: The first movement of the Second Brandenburg was selected, along with birdsong, whale-calls, and a message from President Jimmy Carter, to be sent to outer space on Voyager as an example of our planet’s finest achievements for the possible appreciation of extra-terrestrial beings.
Although they are secular, the Brandenburg Concertos are a holiday performance tradition at The Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Center. The works, all in major keys, have a collective festive spirit, and CMS’s superb artists certainly appeared to enjoy performing them.
Adverse weather conditions meant there was a last-minute reshuffling of the performance order in order to accommodate a late-arriving violinist, but this unexpected change did not appear to rattle the performers (although it did confuse the stage hands, who at one point made three entrances between works to shuffle chairs and stands). Thus the concert began with the First Brandenburg, not the Fifth. Daniel Phillips led the ensemble on piccolo violin, and set the mood of the concert with his crisp articulation, brilliant tone, and brisk tempos, making for a real sense of excitement. The CMS performers did not strive to achieve stylistic accuracy. Phillips’s playing sounded much more rooted in the Romantic period than the Baroque, with broad bow strokes and, for the most part, liberally applied vibrato. This choice was by no means a detriment to the performance. Instead, the concerto became alive with the player’s exuberance, despite some slightly muddy horn-playing in the faster passages.
The concert continued without violins in the Sixth Concerto, featuring Paul Neubauer and Richard O’Neill as viola soloists. The first movement was taken at a fast tempo and the soloists played with a brilliant tone and a loud dynamic, not at all mellow as one would expect from a viola, thus allowing the instrument to disprove its reputation as the butt of many jokes. The second movement displayed more dynamical nuance, and was remarkable as well for spot-on intonation from bassist Edgar Meyer, who eschewed vibrato completely. The finale’s gigue had a suitably joyous feel.
The first half of the concert concluded with the Second Concerto. Piccolo trumpeter David Washburn stood several steps stage-right from his colleagues, yet he still drowned them out at times. Solo violinist Erin Keefe had a sweet tone but she and flutist Ransom Wilson could only truly shine in the second movement, which lacks a trumpet part.
The concert’s second half began with the Fifth Concerto. Phillips was again the solo violinist, and he proved himself to be the star of the string players with his impeccable articulation and varied tone color. However, this was harpsichordist John Gibbons’s moment in the spotlight, and he performed the virtuoso keyboard part with aplomb.
The Third Concerto followed, with its nine string solo parts covered by one performer each, though sounding like a vastly larger ensemble. First violinist Ani Kavafian added a short flourish on the first of the two notated chords of the second movement, but her choice of tempo for the finale was too fast, rather too race-like. Although the performers were technically capable of covering the notes, some details were lost.
The concert concluded with the Fourth Concerto once the confused stagehands had set up the proper number of chairs and music-stands. Ani Kavafian was the featured soloist, and her shrill tone did not blend with the other players. Paula Robison’s flute solo in the second movement was particularly appealing in timbre, yet the final cadence of the movement was the only apparent example of non-exact intonation during the concert, with Kavafian sounding slightly out of sync with the two solo flautists. Again, the tempo in the final movement was too fast, and the some of the violin lines sounded mushy. Yet the overall joyous vibe was infectious.