Saturday, December 10, 2016

Six monuments of 18th-century ensemble music are performed with elan at the Palladium

It's the best-known failed job application in musical history.

In 1721, J.S. Bach gathered six of the best concertos written out of his secular duties at the court of Anhalt-Cothen and sent them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, a Prussian province near Berlin. The result? No reply and, scholars think, probably no performance of them there.

Almost ever since, because at least the margrave kept his copy, the Brandenburg Concertos have represented the height of Bach's ensemble music outside his sacred works. They were performed Friday night at the Palladium by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a modern-instrument ensemble.

If the musicians are stylistically sensitive, this music is perfectly satisfying in modern dress. As rewarding as I've found original-instrument renditions in recordings directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, I prefer in particular the use of the type of flute everyone knows today in Concerto No. 4 in G major, which concluded the concert here in fine fashion.

When the flutists have the sterling tone and control of phrasing  displayed by Sooyun  Kim and Tara Helen O'Connor, the effect is thrilling. It's gratifying to have their lines top the ensemble texture, though some will prefer to hear recorders (the flauto dolce known to Bach) nestled in the fabric along with the solo violin. Kim and O'Connor also evinced thorough rapport in all elements of their role, including rhythmic precision and dynamics.

This was true of all the soloists, together with their accompaniments, as the 20 musicians transferred in and out of prominence — a couple omnipresent, some only heard from in one concerto — in the course of the two-hour concert. The rapport was striking from the outset in the virtuoso complexity of Concerto No. 1 in F major, with solo roles for two horns, three oboes, and (most prominent) violin.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Not the same personnel, but the ensemble set-up for the first Brandenburg Concerto.
And for instrumental color, none of the concertos is more illustrative than the finale of No. 1 in F major, with its lilting trio, pulsating polonaise, and a sort of "hunting" episode for horns and oboes, troweled successively and expertly into a captivating minuet. This showed the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the top of its game.

Of course, any traversal of the half-dozen masterpieces has to be notable for two solo turns that have lifted a couple of the concertos into separate performances in concerts including other composers. One of them — the trumpet of Concerto No. 2 in F major — requires a specialist in the clarino trumpet, a high-register instrument originally valveless. It inevitably dominates in the outer movements, though three other soloists are featured; here again, the use of the modern flute is preferable to me, as it evens out the solo group somewhat, in contrast to the soft-spoken recorder Bach knew. Trumpeter David Washburn did not disappoint.

The other highlight, with a first-movement tune so beguiling that it was even adapted by an art-rock band decades ago, is the enthralling harpsichord cadenza of No. 5 in D major.  This was brought off Friday evening with an admirable feeling for structure and slight tempo fluctuations by Kenneth Weiss. Among many satisfying moments in these concertos, I've always had the feeling that the bass line that strides majestically upward in the cadenza's peroration, just after a climactic flurry has swept the keyboard, is an assertion — desperately needed nowadays — that all is right with the world.

Of Concerto No. 6  in B-flat major, which brought the concert up to intermission, it's worth mentioning that the music's emphasis on lower strings seems more sprightly than dour when the viola parts are taken by such masters as Che-Yen Chen and Paul Neubauer. In the higher part, Neubauer showed himself to be about the most lyrical viola player imaginable; Chen was excellent  as principal viola in the fourth concerto.

The concerto-for-orchestra-style work is No. 3 in G major, for strings only, batting around a wealth of material in the outer movements, which are separated by a pair of slow chords (here with the violinist decorating the first one, as usual). The launch of the first movement was not rock solid, but jelled before long. Like all the fast movements in the concert, it was taken at a rapid clip. With that one exception, there wasn't a moment when such speed seemed too reckless for players as individually expert and finely coordinated as this bunch.

He may have been as stonily unresponsive as many prospective employers are today, but somehow Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg three centuries ago, found a way he could never have imagined to ensure his immortality.