Small is beautiful in Bach Collegium Japan program at Zankel Hall

Sat Dec 01, 2018 at 1:52 pm
Masaki Suzuki led Bach Collegium Japan Friday night at Zankel Hall.

Masaki Suzuki led Bach Collegium Japan Friday night at Zankel Hall.

Carnegie Hall’s downstairs Zankel Hall could hardly be called vast, but sitting in Row Q on Friday night and listening to Bach Collegium Japan craft its exquisitely nuanced versions of eighteenth-century orchestral works, the Baroque era seemed both long ago and far away.

On this occasion, “orchestral” typically meant four violins and one each of viola, cello, double bass, and harpsichord—the same number of players it takes to perform Mendelssohn’s Octet.

A Vivaldi concerto in “concerto grosso” style—pitting a small solo group against a larger orchestra—was performed with three soloists and an orchestra of five. The five consisted of those same three soloists plus two more violinists.

“Small is beautiful” has been a recurring theme in historically-informed performance ever since Joshua Rifkin recorded Bach’s B minor Mass with one singer to a part in the 1970s. Friday’s micro-orchestras were certainly justifiable on those grounds.

And one can even make a case for playing small, as the Bach Collegium musicians did on Friday under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki at the harpsichord, taking short bow strokes to produce an authentically slender “period” tone, avoiding extremes of dynamics, tastefully shaping and interlacing their parts.

One could literally have heard a pin drop during this performance. At one point a door to the hall clicked shut at the end of a soft passage, and the audience emitted an audible gasp at the intrusion.

There was much to admire, once one adjusted to the near-absence of sound in Zankel’s not-so-cavernous confines. In the high-profile flute part of Bach’s Suite No. 2 in B minor, the whooshy, whispery tone of Liliko Maeda’s wooden flute had a firm enough center to stand up to the acidic violins. She duelled charmingly with them in the shapely running lines of the Ouverture and the Rondeau, and executed brilliant solo turns in the Double (variation) of the Polonaise and the sassy closing Badinerie.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11 featured blazing-fast fiddling from two violins and (unusually for that period) the cello, but the players never lost their cool, even in the aria-like Largo movement. The fiery temperament of the “Red Priest” was banked to embers in this fastidious performance.

The addition of soprano Joanne Lunn to the ensemble in cantatas by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti and G.F. Handel promised to flesh out the performances a bit, especially given the religious-erotic texts of both works, addressing Christ as a lover in sometimes startlingly explicit terms.

Instead, Lunn mostly got with the group’s program, modulating her handsome, finely placed voice in phrases that tended to ring at the top and vanish in the lower notes, and inviting the listener to admire her many shades of vibrato and non-vibrato tone along the way.

Within that aesthetic, the concise movements of Conti’s Languet anima mea (performed in J.S. Bach’s arrangement, which added two oboes to the string ensemble) were well characterized. The aria “O vulnera, vita coelestis” sustained its understated pathos in a swaying three-to-a-bar, “Tu lumen mentis es” got up and danced a bit, and Lunn took a spirited run at the twirling roulades of the closing “Alleluja.”

In the longer arias of Handel’s Silete venti, HWV 242, which closed the program, the limitations of this group’s approach became more apparent, as the movements plodded ahead on a single plane while the performers occupied themselves with expressive details. Soprano Lunn ventured a coquettish smile and vocal flourish now and then, without much support from her earnest colleagues.

Bright spots in the Handel included a zesty fugue on a repeated-note subject in the opening Symphonia, ending dramatically with the soprano’s cry of “Silete!” (Silence!), and conversely her releasing a minor-key windstorm (“Surgant venti”) in the second aria’s middle section. Strings and soprano, however, couldn’t settle on a tempo for the swirling triplets of the final “Alleluja,” the former zipping merrily ahead, the singer slowing somewhat to cope with the rapid melismas.

Two interesting works preceded the Handel in the program’s second half. Alessandro Marcello was nowhere near as prolific as his better-known brother Benedetto, but his Oboe Concerto has found a toehold in the repertoire, and Masamitsu San’nomiya managed his balky Baroque oboe creditably in it on Friday.

Contrary to the usual thin-to-robust trend in instrumental development, the early oboe had a more open, trumpet-like sound than its more nasal modern descendants. However, getting it to move with the agility San’nomiya displayed on Friday was quite a feat.

If making room for his embellishments necessitated a sluggish tempo in the opening movement, there was no holding back in the Presto finale, and the oboist’s racing sixteenth-notes kept up just fine. A touch of that undefinable thing called flair would have helped, but this was not much of a night for flair.

The ensemble’s virtues shone best in the program’s one piece that wasn’t in an orchestral genre, Telemann’s Quatuor (i.e., Quartet) No. 1 in D major from Nouvelles Quatuors. The role of leader in this elegant chamber work went mostly to flutist Maeda, whose sensuous tone and spirited runs enlivened the six brief movements, with equally vivid contributions from violinist Ryo Terakado, cellist Emmanuel Balssa, and harpsichordist Suzuki.

Following the Handel, soprano Lunn and the ensemble offered an encore strikingly similar to the “Alleluja” they’d just performed, the closing recitative and aria (“Wie freudig ist mein Herz”) from Bach’s Cantata 199. One learned that singing fast triplets tends to go better when it’s one word to a note instead of those long one-syllable melismas.

Carnegie Hall presents Julia Wolfe’s multimedia work Anthracite Fields, 9 p.m. Saturday in Zankel Hall.; 212-247-7800.

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