In what has become a holiday ritual, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave a spirited if imperfect performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos at Harris Theater on Wednesday night. CMS presents a four-concert series every year at the Harris Theater. During the holidays a few years ago they added a fifth performance, the ensemble pieces that Bach dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. To great audience response, the program has been reprised every year. The Harris Theater’s 1,500-seat auditorium was packed on Wednesday night.
The Brandenburg concertos are some of Bach’s most enduring musical legacies. The scoring for each concerto is peculiar; each has a different grouping of soloists and backing instruments, which can themselves be played solo or as an orchestra. A performance of all six concertos together, even in a chamber music setting, requires assembling at least 21 musicians. As few as seven performers might be onstage at any given time, and half of the musicians might perform only once or twice the entire evening.
But not just anyone can play this music. The technical demands, even for those playing back-up parts, can be extreme. Headed by the two artistic directors, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, CMS has assembled a large coterie of highly talented players eminently capable of pulling it off. While Han and Finckel were not performing Wednesday night, the musicians who were onstage were top notch.
Given their rather strange scoring demands, the Brandenburg Concertos are not performed all that often. In recent years, however, Chicagoans have had two opportunities to hear them during the holidays; the Civic Orchestra of Chicago also plays them in marathon concerts. (See TCR review of last year’s Brandenburg Concerto marathon, which featured renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Concerto No. 3.)
Opening the evening on Wednesday was Concerto No. 5 in D-major, the only one to feature a harpsichord as one of the solo instruments. It boasts one of the most amazing instrumental solos in all of music: a four-minute harpsichord cadenza at the end of the first movement. This particular solo is hugely labored, and it actually works best when the performer seems to struggle, as if pushing a giant boulder up a large hill. The effect of it reaching the pinnacle, only to roll off on the other side, marvelously captures the drama these passages convey.
Harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss, who also played harpsichord on the other concertos in a backup, continuo role, was delightful Wednesday night, hitting each note precisely. The other soloists are inevitably overshadowed in the fast opening movement, but Cho-Liang Lin on violin and Robert Langevin on flute shone in the slow second movement, scored as a quartet for the three soloists and double bass, which Joseph Conyers played throughout the concert. The slow movements of several of these concertos only have parts for the soloists and backing double bass and harpsichord.
Concerto No 1 in F-Major was up next. This requires at least 13 players, the largest number of all the concertos. It’s a fascinating piece because the players are divided into four sections of strings, winds, horns and bass/continuo that play off one another—all in support of a violin solo, deftly played by Daniel Phillips on Wednesday night. The woodwind section of three oboes and a bassoon was tight and precise. They were especially effective in the middle sections of the finale, giving life to a movement that often feels rather tedious. The horns, on the other hand, seemed a bit off throughout.
Concerto No. 2 in F-Major, which rounded out the concert’s first half, features a technically demanding, high-pitched trumpet part. Playing a piccolo trumpet, Brandon Ridenour gave a note-precise rendition. Where this performance struggled, as many of them do, is keeping the loud trumpet in balance with the rest of the ensemble, especially the three other soloists. Violinist Danbi Um and flautist Caroline Wincenc held their own rather well, but oboist James Austin Smith could hardly be heard.
After intermission the concert opened with Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G-Major, a work requiring a smaller, nine-piece ensemble. Pride of place goes to any violinist gifted enough to play the harried and frenzied solo part, which requires the strength and determination of Hercules. On Wednesday violinist Kristin Lee absolutely dazzled, blazing through with super high energy, leaving nothing left standing. She was joined by two other soloists, flautists Wincenc and Langevin, who provided a perfectly blended backdrop, which itself can be rather frenetic.
The final two works on the program only feature string players, in addition to the harpsichord backup. Concerto No. 3 in G-Major has an odd alignment of ten string players: three violins, three violas, three cellos, and one double bass. While the players in each section can play in unison together, they often have their own individual parts. The sections pass melodies amongst one another, or back up individual instruments that happen to have solo passages.
Concerto No. 3 is also unusual in that the middle movement consists of just two chords played very slowly. Some performers add embellishments or substitute a slow movement from some other work. Wednesday’s performance was a simple reading of the two chords, which soon gave way to fast-paced dance to wrap it up.
Bach reserved the strangest instrumental arrangement for Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, which only has lower ranged strings: two violas, one cello, onr double bass, and two viola da gambas, an archaic instrument for which cellos are typically substituted, as was the case on Wednesday night. The benefit of not using violins is the rarely heard predominance given to the violas, which have dancing and interweaving melodic parts that can be very canonical. Violists Yura Lee and Richard O’Neill were delightful and spirited. The cello also plays a key melodic role, and cellist Colin Carr seamlessly fit right in.
The next performance of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Harris Theater will feature the music of Antonin Dvořák and Johannes Brahms. Wednesday, January 17, at 7:30pm, at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St.