In the latest installment of what’s become an annual Yuletide tradition, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave a wonderful performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos before a smaller than usual audience at the Harris Theater on Friday night. In doing so, they succeeded in accomplishing everything one hopes to see in a presentation of this challenging music, with one exception.
The Brandenburg concertos are some of Bach’s most enduring musical legacies. The scoring for each concerto is peculiar with different groupings of soloists and backing instruments. A performance of all six concertos requires 21 musicians, but as few as seven performers might be onstage at any given time. Several 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. While CMS artistic directors pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel were not performing Friday night, Han did address the audience. In addition to the boilerplate holiday greetings, she pointed out that CMS can call on enough top-notch players to shift them around from year to year and still perform beautifully. Friday’s night’s ensemble was quite different from the one that performed two years ago, when this reviewer last saw this concert.
Han also pointed out that they deliberately shuffle the performance order of the concertos, which gives them 720 possible permutations. This year’s program was heavy on the strings in the first half, when Concertos No. 3 and 6 were performed. These are the only two that, in addition to harpsichord, are scored only for strings. Also, except for the cellos and harpsichord, the performers played while standing, which allowed a lot more animation than one experiences when the performers are all seated.
Concerto No. 3 in G-major was first up, and it demonstrated the wonderful ensemble interaction and dynamic control that was evident all evening. It is scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos, string bass, and harpsichord. The strings function both as an orchestra section playing the same thing and as individual soloists playing separate parts. The sections pass melodies amongst one another or play back up to individual solo passages. Ensemble tightness on Friday was evident in the finale, when each instrument gets a solo that, starting with the first violin, cascades all the way down through the cellos. Throughout the performance, first violist Hsin-Yun Huang was especially animated.
This concerto 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. As was the case two years ago, Friday’s performance was a simple reading of the two chords, which soon gave way to the fast-paced dance that wraps it up.
Concerto No. 1 in F-major was up next. This requires 13 players, the largest number of all the concertos. It is fascinating because the players are divided into four sections of strings, winds, horns, and bass/continuo, half of whom also serve as soloists. The winds and horns were delightful in their first appearance of the evening. One challenge of all of the concertos is keeping balance between all of the instruments, and Friday night’s performance excelled in this area. The horns were sharp and wonderful, and the oboes and bassoon held their ground nicely. CMS passed with flying colors one of the tests of this music: keeping interesting the oddly placed minuet finale, of which this reviewer is not especially fond.
The last work of the first half was Concerto no. 6 in B-flat-major, which has the strangest instrumental arrangement of all the concertos. In addition to the continuo harpsichord, it only has lower ranged strings: two violas, one cello, one double bass, and two viola da gambas, an archaic instrument for which cellos are typically substituted, as was the case on Friday 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. The animated performance by violists Richard O’Neill and Huang added verve and visual interest. In the slow movement, they interacted especially well with cellist Colin Carr, who performed admirably in several of the concertos.
The second half of the concert opened with this reviewer’s favorite Brandenburg 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 near 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. It also was the first work on Friday evening to include the flute, which solos with the violin and harpsichord.
The harpsichord’s limited dynamic range can be challenge because the other instruments can drown it out. Friday night’s blend was perfect, as the harpsichord came through splendidly. It especially worked well in the slow, second movement, which, as is the case of most Brandenburg Concertos, features only the soloists. The only sag in the evening’s entire performance was the harpsichord solo, which Hyeyeon Park played very haltingly. This approach can contribute to the labored feel of the performance, but it never quite reached the dramatic climax that makes this solo so memorable.
Another work that poses significant challenges with blend was up next, Concerto No. 2 in F-major. Alone of the Brandenburg Concertos, this one features a trumpet that is hard to keep in balance with the other instruments. No problem Friday night. As the initial bars showed, David Washburn managed to keep his trumpet in perfect alignment with the rest of the players, whether he played as a soloist or as part of the backing ensemble. On the other extreme, the oboe can often be lost in the mix, but not Friday night, when oboist James Austin Smith sounded loud and clear.
The concert concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto that may be the most familiar, No. 4 in G-Major, a work requiring a smaller, nine-piece ensemble. The flute solos come out full tilt in this work, and Sooyun Kim and Tara Helen O’Connor were wonderful on Friday night. But it is hard to ignore the engrossingly virtuosic violin part, which requires the strength and determination of Hercules. Arnaud Sussmann came through big on Friday night.
The next CMS concert at Harris Theater is The Creative Spirit, which features piano trios, violin sonatas, and quartets by Suk, Janácek, Debussy, and Brahms, Monday, January 13, 2020, 7:30 pm. Tickets range $30-$70, and can be purchased here.