Chamber Music Society’s Baroque program takes a walk on the mild side

Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 11:51 am

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s concert Friday night at Alice Tully Hall was Baroque music, done the old-fashioned way: the style propagated via hi-fi’s and long-playing records throughout middle-class living rooms after World War II. That has now been superseded by a “new” performing style that self-consciously seeks validation in the historical origins of the Baroque era. Old is new, modern is old – confusing.

Period performance practice is not the last word in music-making, but it has been invaluable in clearing away the accumulated grime of received wisdom about the Baroque. Like restored Renaissance frescoes, revealed underneath is a vast amount of inventive and stylish music. Some of these pieces were on the Alice Tully program, an odd grab-bag that artistic directors David Finkel and Wu Han asserted in the program notes represented the birth of chamber music, when Baroque composers “basically went wild.”

The playing was polished and energetic, but there’s nothing wild about the (call it) old-school approach. Wildness can be an essential value in the music of the era, but this style of playing, heavily colored by romanticism, sands off and buffs the ruff edges into a homogenized gloss. This can be beautiful and meaningful, but the fundamental problem was that it treated the wide variety of composers in exactly the same way.

Opening the concert was Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major for Two Violins, Cello, Strings and Continuo, the first of his Opus 6 collection. Corelli was pioneering forms and structures in chamber music, but he was never far from the music’s origins in courtly dance and entertainment; lively rhythms and stylish phrases are built into the score. The performance, led by violinist Ani Kavafian, was big and strong but not quick, lacking the lilt and springy step that the Allegro passages demand. The same approach doomed the Concerto a cinque, Op. 9, No. 6, by Albinoni, a mediocre composer who needs stronger advocacy to stand out on in a concert with Handel and Bach.

Handel’s Trio Sonata in G minor for Oboe, Violin and Continuo, Op. 2, No. 8 and Bach’s famous Concerto in C minor for Oboe, Violin, Strings and Continuo (BWV 1060R) are masterpieces that meld the social pleasures of the Baroque with sophisticated structures, and these performances were excellent. Handel’s harmonic motion, with its powerful logic, benefits from the easy weight of modern instruments, and Bach’s polyphony is so rich as to encompass myriad approaches. Oboists James Austin Smith in the Handel and Stephen Taylor in the Bach each played with a lively sound and a delicate edge to their phrasing.

The qualities of these two pieces masked the consistent flaw in the concert, continuo playing that had the precision and lifelessness of a machine. The motor ran fine, but there was no embellishment or improvisation from cellist Colin Carr or bassist Anthony Manzo, and only the minimum from Kenneth Weiss at the harpsichord. The metronomic tempos allowed no flexibility within the bar lines, even for soloists.

That was disappointing because there were some real surprises on the program and in the playing. Domenico Gallo is an obscure composer who would be forgotten except for Stravinsky adapting his Trio Sonatas for the ballet Pulcinella. His Sonata No. 1 in G major for Two Violins and Continuo is the music of Stravinsky’s “Overture,” and it’s impossible to hear it without recalling the pleasure of the later composer’s masterwork. Unfortunately, the performance of Gallo’s La Folia in G minor (violinists Sean Lee, Kavafian, violist Mark Holloway, Carr, Manzo and Weiss) was sadly dull. If any music should be “wild,” it is this form adapted from a licentious dance.

Carr was refreshingly brilliant in Boismortier’s Concerto in D major for Cello, Strings and Continuo, Op. 26, No. 6. This is an odd work, with an amateurish ensemble melody and simplistic harmonic structure behind an athletic and inventive solo part. Carr has a great, individual sound that manages to be both bracingly dry and ringing, and he’s quick enough to play the demanding run of notes with musical phrasing.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in E-Flat major, the fifth of his Op. 8 book for strings and continuo closed the evening. Subtitled “La tempesta di mare,” it’s one of his more interesting works. Vivaldi was the Philip Glass of his day, endlessly reusing the same material and, at his best, fitting things together in idiosyncratic ways. “La tempesta” is full of those pleasures – cadences that end prematurely, disjointed juxtapositions of phrases and tempos – and the ensemble indulged in them lightly, but never relinquished their suavity for the call of the wild.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center plays Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 5 p.m. December 15 and 7:30 December 17.

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