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Concert Review

Chamber Music Society goes for Baroque with lively solo program

Mon Dec 10, 2018 at 1:20 pm
"La Barre and Other Musicians" by Andre Bouys, Andre, c.1710.

“La Barre and Other Musicians” by André Bouys, c.1710.

With plenty of fanfare—in the form of spiffy trumpet playing by Brandon Ridenour—the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center unveiled its first entry in New York’s holiday-season Baroque sweepstakes Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall.

The program, titled “Baroque Collection,” offered a generous selection of concertos and arias by the Baroque Big Three (Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi) plus a flute concerto by Johann Joachim Quantz—nine items in all, lasting well over two hours with intermission.

Thanks to lively performances, an ever-changing cast of soloists, and a simple stage setup that required no long delays for resetting between pieces, tedium never set in, and the hits just kept on coming.

In Tully’s intimate space, these “orchestral” works sounded quite substantial with just one instrument to a part, thanks in part to Kenneth Weiss’s rich, imaginative realizations of the figured bass at the harpsichord.

However, leading off with Quantz’s Flute Concerto No. 161 (!) in G major was perhaps not a good idea. For an audience primed to hear the best the Baroque era had to offer, this was dull stuff indeed, already tilting away from the great contrapuntal style and toward the empty-headed galanteries that supplanted it. As it zipped this way and that in scales and arpeggios, Quantz’s score couldn’t seem to buy a distinctive idea for money.

Perhaps the performance was lacking as well. For all its energy and polish, this rendering didn’t delve very far into what Quantz was trying to express, be it wit or pathos. Flutist Sooyun Kim, her modern flute sounding rich and sumptuous, coolly dispatched Quantz’s endless variety of fast figurations for her instrument, but also seemed rather cool and detached in the middle movement, marked Arioso Mesto (like a sad aria) but here not sounding very songful or sorrowful.

Whatever the reason, Quantz’s concerto came off as a trifle. For the purposes of this program, it might have worked better somewhere in the middle, as a palate-cleanser between richer courses.

Trumpeter Ridenour and soprano Joélle Harvey had more to work with in the next two items, Handel’s “Eternal source of light divine” from the Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne and Bach’s “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” from Cantata No. 51.

In Handel’s glacial-speed largo, the two soloists matched their instrumental and vocal tones in a quasi-recitative dialogue. Then they stepped out brightly in Bach’s cheery aria, with Ridenour expertly managing the difficult high trumpet part and Harvey doing likewise with her part’s gnarly melismas, though tending to poke her high notes and fade in her lower register. Ridenour played well with others (the strings and soprano), perhaps at the expense of some sparkle in his own part.

Harvey returned with two numbers from Handel’s early cantata Il delirio amoroso, “Per te lasciai la luce” hovering between recitative and aria, and “Un pensiero voli in ciel” bristling with fast melismas. Cellist Efe Baltacigil and violinist Erin Keefe contributed effective obbligati, his a dying fall of pathos, hers a bit of concerto-style razzle-dazzle. Harvey’s voice was heard to better advantage here, clear and finely modulated in all registers, capable of swelling expressively on one syllable or of flicking a stratospheric high note in a fast roulade.

In fact, the focus of her performance seemed to be on vocal tone itself, almost as another instrument in the chamber ensemble, instead of on projecting character, the meaning of the text, or even the words themselves. Consonants took a back seat to vowels, making it difficult for a listener to follow along in the printed text.

Tonal contrast, not blending, was the story in Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in A minor, RV 497. Marc Goldberg’s mellow bassoon slid in under the incisive string ensemble with long, smooth phrases and buttery runs. Strings wove a mood of silken pathos to start the Andante molto, but the bassoon’s long notes and gentle embellishments made this the most laid-back of operatic arias.

Soprano Harvey allowed more character to show through in Handel’s early cantata Armida abbandonata, gently chiding the unfaithful lover, mezzo voce, in the aria “Ah! crudele,” and permitting herself a flash of anger in the recitative “Per te mi struggo, infido.”  One could imagine a more dramatic portrayal of the sorceress summoning a storm to drown the departing hero, then thinking better of it and praying for his safe passage, but Harvey’s rendering was affecting, in its chamber-music way.

A somewhat beefed-up ensemble anchored by bassoon and double bass encouraged trumpet and soprano to let fly in “Let the bright Seraphim” from Handel’s oratorio Samson. Sounding fully warmed up, Harvey negotiated the brilliant aria with ease, and Ridenour fired off some nifty embellishments in the da capo.

As with Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony and Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, no one knows exactly how Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D major, “Il Grosso Mogul” (The Grand Mogul) acquired its nickname, but the motivation was the same in each case: to describe the imperial grandeur of the music.

Content with spidery obbligati earlier in the program, violinist Keefe now tore into the solo part’s slashing double-stops and hyperactive string-crossing with gusto, earning a round of applause at the first movement’s close.

The middle movement was an eloquent recitative, flights of rhetoric alternating with pauses to reflect. The finale was a catalogue of violin wizardry—chattering double-stops, leggiero arpeggios, caressing phrases, and just plain fast fiddling, capped by a long cadenza of, yes, imperial splendor and wit.

Keefe and the other solo players acquitted themselves with distinction. Some took individual bows and some didn’t, as this group’s customary chamber-music ethos contended with the program’s showoff-soloist vibe.

In any case, a special Chamber Music Iron Man award goes to the excellent double bassist Xavier Foley, for a couple dozen trips on or off the Tully stage to perform or take a bow, toting his massive instrument each time.

The Baroque Festival of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center continues with a repeat of this program 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and performances of Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos 7:30 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18, all at Alice Tully Hall.  chambermusicsociety.org; 212-875-5788.

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