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Keep The X in Xmas

New York
Weill Recital Hall
11/14/2001 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Brandenburg Concerti
St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble

“For the Beyond (the Pleasure Principle), I have been punished enough; it is very popular, brings me masses of letters and encomiums. I must have made something very stupid there.”

Sigmund Freud, letter to Max Eitingon, March 1921

The performance history of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach is a fascinating and convoluted journey. These profoundly marvelous pieces were originally written either for meager commissions or to fulfill quotidian requirements in Bach’s desperate attempts to support his burgeoning family. After “old Bach” passed on, his music was relegated to the realm of nostalgia, his reputation as an organist and a large number of musical progeny basically all that survived. Once Felix Mendelssohn, with the help of Robert Schumann, presented the St. Matthew Passion approximately 100 years after its composition, the Bach revival began. His precepts had already begun to live on hidden within the great harmonic tradition from Mozart (who had studied with Johann Christian in London) to Berg (who paid homage to the chorale in his very last effort, the Violin Concerto), however, it took a considerable amount of time for his individual works to enter the mainstream concert repertoire. In fact, Baroque music in general, despite its ubiquity on FM radio, is a rarity in the modern concert hall.

But New Yorkers who feel that chill in the air and spend any time visiting the depressingly empty department stores know that the holiday season is upon us. For whatever reason, Christmas and New Year’s are the last refuge of the Baroque and virtually all of the music that one hears from Halloween to Three Kings comes from the 17th and early 18th centuries. Some of this is, of course, inspired by religion; there is virtually never a performance of Messiah in the summer. In the case of Bach though, the seemingly more appropriate choices, particularly the cantatas strung together as the ”Christmas” Oratorio, are conspicuous by their absence. Although Schmieder’s catalogue lists many hundreds of works, what we encounter at this time of year and at every turn are the lively (and decidedly secular) orchestral pieces written for the Margrave of Brandenburg.

Fifth Avenue may be empty this year, but a performance by the chamber ensemble of the fine Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the richly appointed Weill Recital Hall was as packed as a Saturday afternoon at FAO Schwarz from a distant Christmas past. One of the guiding principles of this organization is presenting performances that approximate the original size of the instrumental ensemble which would have introduced the works in question. Presenting these concerti with a small band in an intimate hall is perhaps the most accurate translation for modern audiences. St. Luke’s eschews the use of period instruments and, depending on the conductor du jour, vacillates intriguingly between contemporary, robust interpretation and more severe, vibratoless “authenticity”. As in last week’s performance by the Camerata Salzburg, this recital emphasized the positive energy which flows from an experienced chamber ensemble when there is no conductor present to impede with arcane philosophy its innate freedom of expression.

In a fascinatingly various method of presentation, this highly talented small band of musicians performed each of the six concerti in a different configuration of platform positioning. The intrinsic variety of instrumentation already supplied by the composer was visually and acoustically enhanced creatively by this masterstroke of showmanship. It is worth delineating these interesting seating patterns as an emblem of the overall brilliance of the experience:

1. No. 1 in F

The largest ensemble of the evening (15 strong) was also the most controversial. The surrounding of the steady continuo (harpsichord, one cello and one double bass) with the other musicians seated strings on one side, three oboes, bassoon and two horns on the other produced a sound which was immediately argumentative. In this configuration, each instrumental line was of equal emphasis, thus, the harmony of the horns and bassoon was as loud and up front as the melody of the high strings. A modern recording engineer’s worst nightmare, this aesthetic egalitarianism offered up the music in an entirely new light and reminded one of the more raucous ancestor of these concerti, the medieval consort.

2. No. 6 in B Flat

All strings, this positioning seemed more authentic than most of the others (their regular conductors would have been proud) as the violins and viola players stood throughout the performance stage right. The lack of any one player in the middle emphasized the blended quality of this concerto and the incredibly accurate acoustics at Weill (the best sonic venue in the city) allowed us to all hear not only the blessed compendium but also each and every instrumental part. The smaller ensemble sounded at one and the same time like a congress of individuals and one celestial musician performing on a multi-stringed harp.

3. No. 4 in G

With two flutes and one violin standing in the center and the rest of the group seated at the back, this permutation seemed the most modern and visually instructed us in the birth of the concerto grosso form, the solo and tutti clearly separated for the first time. Even the aftermath of the piece was different from its predecessors as the three featured players left the stage for a curtain call while the “back-up group” remained. This was the tightest reading of the lot and was notable for its briskness and infectious vitality.

4. No. 5 in D

At first a violin and a flute are center stage with the rest of the band in the background, but as this pioneering piano concerto progressed, the keyboard player emerged into the limelight. The sound of the harpsichord was pristine in this marvelous hall, but I wondered why St. Luke’s did not experiment with a modern piano here. I am as much of a purist (or fundamentalist if one wishes to be pejorative about all of this) as the next fellow, except that my penchant is for the most updated forms of instrumentation. As a child, I always preferred the sophisticated versions of the Brandenburgs by the chamber orchestra assembled by Edwin Fischer, its opulent and unabashed use of the contemporary 88’s creating much more musical tension than is available with the more gentle keyboards of the period. This music cries out for suppressed crescendi, held in check to an almost orgasmic level before fruition, and the modern instrument simply is the preferable. Using the harpsichord seemed a bit of a careening off of this ensemble’s basic philosophical path, but this very rebellion was refreshing in the “school’s out” atmosphere of no conductor.

5. No. 3 in G

Strings only again, but this time fanned out into a “U” of standing participants. The first violinist and the violist alternated an intense melodic line into which they really dug with relish. This was the grittiest performance of the evening and actually contained some red-blooded crescendi (good heavens!) in the celli which served to heighten the dramatic effect (please don’t tell Mr. Norrington).

6. No. 2 in F

That E Flat trumpet player only gets to work once a year and so it was fitting that his piece was saved for a stirring finale. Yet another variant on the concerto grosso form, the four solo instruments (violin, flute, oboe, trumpet) were deployed standing at the fore in roughly the same arrangement as the ensemble as a whole from the first concerto. The effect was acoustically similar, each individual line clearly enunciated with no special treatment accorded to the melody. The little brass instrument appeared to be a modern reproduction of the Baroque original and soared superbly above the fray. The central movement is played without its brittle sonorities, not, as one might think, because the performer needs to recover from his crimson-visaged near embolism, but rather because these old horns were not able to play in other keys (an influence that permeated the entire history of the concerto-this is at least partially why the genre developed with the two outer movements harmonically compatible). Recovering his composure, the soloist led a rousing conclusion to the entire proceedings, leaving us with a hint of the holidays and the sound of the Salvation Army band in our comforted ears.

Vladimir Horowitz didn’t come to the Mozart concerti until he was a very old man. He always found the presentation of such seemingly simple material to be especially challenging. With a great deal of intelligent planning, the chamber ensemble of St. Luke’s was able to trot out these warhorses with entirely new and sparkling armor, leaving all of us delighted patrons physically experiencing, as Nietzsche used to say, a nodding acquaintance with the music.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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