Chamber Music Society provides festive holiday feast with Bach’s Brandenburgs

Sat Dec 17, 2016 at 3:41 pm
Johann Sebastian Bach's complete Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Friday night at Alice Tully Hall.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Friday night at Alice Tully Hall.

Friday night’s performance of all six Brandenburg Concertos by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center began with a pep talk by the Society’s co-artistic director Wu Han about the need for music in “these crazy times” and continued with uniformly peppy performances of Bach’s evergreen scores.

Angling for a job at the Margrave of Brandenburg’s court in 1721, the composer chose these works for maximum variety and curb appeal, and after the revival of Bach’s music a century later they came to top the list of his greatest hits. (Their special status in the repertoire is acknowledged by the Library of Congress, no less, which catalogues all concertos from Vivaldi to John Williams under “C”—except these six, which are in the “B” drawer.) 

Since the composer didn’t specify the number of instruments to a part, the Chamber Music Society had every right to claim the Brandenburgs as chamber music.  Taken at the brisk pace the Society musicians favor (but with all repeats observed), the full set of six occupied a couple of hours, just about right for a festive but substantial holiday program.

The Society began December performances of the Brandenburgs in 1993, and by this year the custom had grown into a seven-city national tour, including three performances at home in Alice Tully Hall.

With the variety and virtuosity of the concertos’ solo parts—too much, apparently, for the Margrave’s musicians, who put the scores on the shelf without performing them—this program proved not just a holiday treat but quite a commercial for the band as well.

Violinist Daniel Phillips led a bouncy performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major to lead off the evening. With its origins in a “hunting cantata,” this piece featured exuberant parts for two horns in the first and third movements, executed with panache by Eric Reed and Stewart Rose.  Randall Ellis, James Austin Smith, and Stephen Taylor crisply executed their trumpet-like oboe parts, and bassoonist Marc Goldberg firmly anchored the bass line.

For maximum contrast, Bach alternated the “hunting” movements with a dark, passion-style Adagio and, to conclude, a little suite of après-hunt galanteries. The tempo in the Adagio felt a little unstable, as if the musicians couldn’t agree on how deep to dig, on this festive evening, into the grindingly dissonant “false relations” of this grief-stricken piece.

There was inter-movement applause all evening, which the musicians acknowledged good-humoredly, the lustiest coming after the brilliant third movement of No. 1. Evidently, many thought that was the end of the piece—and in effect it was, with the ensuing graceful Menuet and rustic Trio and Polonaise as charmingly-played encores.

After a snappy first movement of No. 2 in F major, in which other soloists were sonically overmatched by trumpeter David Washburn, violinist Arnaud Sussman, flutist Sooyun Kim and oboist Smith got to show off their subtleties of color and phrasing in the curling lines of the Andante. It was perhaps inevitable that a high Baroque trumpet would dominate any chamber ensemble, and Washburn’s impeccable, spirited playing in the outer movements left little to be desired on that front.

The concert’s first half closed with the viola magic of No. 6 in B-flat major, spun by Paul Neubauer and Che-Yen Chen, with cellists Timothy Eddy and Dmitri Atapine, and a cello-bass-harpsichord continuo of, respectively, Keith Robinson, Scott Pingel, and Kenneth Weiss.

Neubauer and Chen invited the listener into their intricate machinations over a chugging beat in the first movement, then opened up a little with an introspective mezzo-soprano duet in the “not too Adagio” (Adagio ma non tanto), with Chen tending to lead off gently and Neubauer responding more boldly.

The closing Allegro assai began soft and feathery, then grew steadily brighter and zestier as it unfolded.  Deftly relating phrases and episodes as they whizzed along, Neubauer, Chen and their colleagues produced the most musically rewarding performance of the night, and one understood anew why Bach chose this quiet concerto to close the set.

The Concerto No. 3 in G major kicked off the second half fast and faster, with two Allegros connected by a brief violin cadenza. Backed by the ever-present continuo of bassist Pingel and harpsichordist Weiss, threes were everywhere– violinists Sussman, Kristin Lee and Sean Lee; violists Chen, Neubauer and Phillips; and cellists Robinson, Eddy, and Atapine—all taking brief solos and tossing motives around the group in a dance-like performance that was as fun to watch as to listen to.

The final Allegro was a thrill ride, the scale figures skidding around corners at top speed, making up in excitement what the performance may have lacked in subtlety and inflection.

In the Concerto No. 5 in D major, featuring violin, flute, and harpsichord, keyboardist Weiss faced a balance issue that was the opposite of trumpeter Washburn’s earlier: it was hard to hear his instrument among the others. Also, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor’s soft-focused tone didn’t stand up well to Kristin Lee’s violin at first.

But soon O’Connor and Lee were phrasing prettily together and treating the Affetuoso (with feeling) second movement with expressive freedom.  The other players backed down to pianissimo to give Weiss his innings at the harpsichord, and one’s ear adjusted to pick up the extravagant scales and figurations with which Bach loaded his part.

O’Connor and Kim returned as a convivial and nicely matched flute duo in the last concerto on the program, No. 4 in G major.  Violin soloist Sean Lee could have used a bit less body english and more expression in the sound, but he did provide some comic relief, if indirectly, in flutist Kim’s bemused expression while watching his most gymnastic solos.

Surprisingly for this speedy evening, the Andante sounded more like Adagio, as the soloists tried to milk the two-note sighing motive for expression. But the whirling Presto finale felt like a celebration of the whole Brandenburg ethos, with the soloists merrily trading phrases and grinning at each other, and stirring the audience to joyous applause.  There was no doubt in the hall on Friday–on the Bach hit parade, the Brandenburg Concertos are still number one with a bullet.

The program will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Alice Tully Hall, and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater in Chicago., 212- 875-5788;; 312-334-7777.

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