Chamber Music Society goes for Baroque with program of rarities

Sat Dec 05, 2015 at 8:13 pm
Anne Vallayer-Coster, "Attributes of Music," 1770.

Anne Vallayer-Coster, “Attributes of Music,” 1770.

In the triangular canon of Baroque music, it’s Bach (the elder) and Handel at the top, and “everyone else” filling out the base.

The two masters did such unsurpassed, defining and complete accomplishments in Baroque, their names are shorthand for the style. So a concert presenter that steers clear of those giants, as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center did Friday night, is pushing against conventional thought about what other 17th- and 18th-century fare still merits playing.

And it was a bit of a push at this year’s edition of the CMS Baroque Collection concert held at Alice Tully Hall. Eight pieces, all beautifully and incisively performed, and with some indelible soloing, the collection also had to contend with limitations of the form and of composers not named J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel.

It got tough over the length of a program emphasizing the lesser knowns to tell a Giovanni Reali from a Philipp Friedrich Böddecker and even C.P.E. Bach from Telemann.

This somewhat undifferentiated quality is traceable in part to the innate qualities of Baroque itself — a highly formalized genre with rules of harmony and counterpoint, and flourishes that are employed by almost every era composer from Monteverdi onward.

The comparatively open space of the lower-register accompaniment — basso continuo — offers room for improvisation, but within confines that are both a source of Baroque’s stately beauty and a reason it can sometimes sound quaint today.

Even so the eight musicians working in different ensemble combinations on Friday played so immersively, it was easy to let all musicological reference points slip away and just enjoy the experience.

The concert opened with a Sonata in E minor for flute and violin, Op. 51, No. 2, by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, one of the five rarities in the lineup that CMS has never previously played in its 46-year history.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and violinist Bella Hristova moved in agreeable sync through a friendly Vivace, a brisk waltz of an Allegro, the more pronounced minor hue of a melancholy Aria and on through the quickening pace of a closing Giga that stopped at the precise moment a phone went off in the seats — no harm done.

It was quartets and quintets from there, with sensitive and sound continuo provided by John Gibbons on harpsichord, Dane Johansen on cello and Paul O’Dette on theorbo — a giraffe among lutes with a ship’s mast for a neck, and strings. Gibbons and O’Dette, in particular, were essentially the house band on Friday, anchoring all but the first piece.

C.P.E. Bach’s Sonata in B Minor for flute, violin and continuo, W. 143 (H. 567), counted as a more familiar work — a handsome baroque tutorial, solidly in the family tradition, with down-drafting violin lines played by Ani Kafavian in the Adagio. The entire quintet executed a graceful descent into the momentary silence that gives way to a bracing Presto.

Vivaldi’s Sonata in A Minor for cello and continuo RV 43 (1740) provided the evening’s most overtly emotional playing and the largest sense of occasion, sadly because of a death in the classical music family.

In the program notes, cellist Efe Baltacigil dedicated his performance to violinist, teacher and conductor Joseph Silverstein, longtime concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestras and a CMS mainstay for 20 years who died last month.

Baltacigil made good on the dedication, displaying intense virtuosity in the Allegro, with his split-second pauses through a series of arpeggios that were so heart-rending it was tempting to burst into applause on the spot, before the piece had even reached the next movement.

François Couperin’s contribution to the program was also in memoriam. Published in 1724, Le Parnasse, ou L’Apothéose de Corelli paid lofty homage to another  baroque composer: Arcangelo Corelli. A quintet led by the sisters Kafavian — violinists Ana and Ida — imbued this grand, heroic mourning sonade with all the pageantry the French composer wrote into it. The Kafavians, in fact, sounded amazingly like stringed incarnations of a much later phenomenon: the twining soprano and mezzo voices of the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé.

A Corelli piece played on Friday, Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 5, No. 6, made the case that he deserved the posthumous acclaim.

By the time the program got to Telemann’s Trio in A minor for flute, violin and continuo, the effect of the samness was starting to kick in. It didn’t help that this trio sonata was the least distinguished, or distinguishable, piece of the evening — almost a prototype of everyone’s idea of what baroque is supposed to sound like, and therefore easier to zone out despite the stellar playing.

But a quintet led by dueling violinists — Hristova and Ida Kafavian— finished exuberantly with La Folia for two violins, cello and  ontinuo, Op, 1, a 1709 piece by Giovanni Reali that accelerated with each measure, like a gypsy dance or a spirited hora, to a breathtaking stop.

The program will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday at Alice Tully Hall.

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