Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Brandenburgs 3, 4 & more

Days and days have passed without my noting the lovely evening of music I heard last weekend at Jordan Hall, courtesy of the Handel and Haydn Society.  This was one of their "just us folks" evenings - all the soloists were from the Society's ranks, save conductor Ian Watson, who did double duty much of the time on harpsichord.  The program was centered on two of the Brandenburgs (3 and 4), although around these "greatest hits" of the baroque era were grouped a few pieces as obscure as the Brandenburgs are famous.  (I've never heard of Charles Avison, for instance, much less his Concerto Grosso No. 5.)  These obscurities all proved worthy -  and some, more than worthy - although the overall effect of the evening was bit like a very enjoyable lecture built around the theme, "There were many great composers in the eighteenth century, but here's why Bach was best."

The one outlier to this thesis - Henry Purcell - was actually a seventeenth-century composer of course, although his one piece on the program, "Pavane and Chacony," sounded like it could have been written by some young turk only yesterday, particularly the strangely moving pavane, which stretched dissonant suspensions almost past their breaking points (while conductor Watson allowed his players to slowly edge toward a kind of keening anarchy).  A highly unusual - and memorable - performance of a highly unusual piece.

Elsewhere, Watson (at right) cut a conducting profile that, as usual, was muscular, intelligent, and above all, heartily rhythmic; while this program didn't include any jigs or rondos, you still could have cut a rug to most of it - and it's somehow wonderful to watch a period band sway with the tunes they're playing as lustily as the Handel-and-Haydneers have learned to do.

There were, however, a few slight disappointments here and there; the Telemann Viola Concerto in G Major, for instance, was certainly lovely, but violist David Miller, though technically fastidious, didn't quite bring enough emotional expansiveness to his solos to make them transporting.  And even though much of the baroque repertoire is sourced in dance, as period music aficionados love to point out, still, dance is not the end-all (much less the be-all) of baroque music.  And so while Watson's approach often paid huge dividends, especially in the lesser works by Boyce and Avison (which proved perfectly smashing), I didn't feel it brought any new dimension to the Brandenburgs.  They danced alright, but not in any enlightening or original way; perhaps there's a subtle sense of musical space to these concerti that you can't capture through lilting rhythms alone.  I must at the same time note, however, that No. 4 was brightened by sparkling playing from Christopher Krueger and Stephen Hammer on recorder, and an almost frenzied turn by the great Christina Day Martinson on violin, and that No. 3 featured perhaps the most focused ensemble work of the program.  Still, I think it will be that grief-stricken Pavane from Purcell that I'll remember most vividly from this enjoyable evening.

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