Baroque Band serves up Bach harpsichord extravaganza in season finale

Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 1:12 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s harpsichord, said to have been inherited from his father J.S. Bach.

Chicago’s fine early-instrument performance group Baroque Band is concluding their third season with a full house of superb harpsichordists on hand.

Friday night’s concert under the Romanesque arches of the Hyde Park Union Church was anchored by two of Bach’s mercurial multi-harpsichord concertos and also featured rare music by near-contemporaries Carl Heinrich Graun, Christoph Graupner, and his eccentric eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

The culminating performance of Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords  (BWV 1065) was the fulfillment of a promise made by music director Garry Clarke to offer this ebullient transcription from Vivaldi’s L’ Éstro Armonico, memorably performed in the city’s first Early Music Festival.

The excellent harpsichordists on tap included ensemble member David Schrader, Jason Moy and Paul Nicholson, who have performed with Baroque Band on previous occasions. The fourth harpsichordist was a young newcomer, Alex Kelber, who took the lead quite effortlessly in an auspicious debut.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords (BWV 1061) is more of a duet between the two instruments than what we know as a concerto. The orchestral bits are mostly cadential reinforcements and the fascinating second movement presents the harpsichords entirely alone trading off solo lines. The final Fuga is a sterling example of Bach’s mastery of the form, and was polished off in style by Schrader and Moy in sensitive collaboration.

The two-harpsichord piece illustrated most clearly the basic issue with concerto performances featuring the harpsichord, which as a plucked-string instrument is incapable of any dynamics in its contest with the more aggressive strings. The cavernous Hyde Park Union church tended to swallow up the keyboard sounds and the resulting lack of balance was stark. Quadrupling the number of keyboards presents the only solution to this problem in this venue, and the sound balance of BWV 1065 was much more satisfactory. The performance of this difficult piece was exemplary and won an enthusiastic response from a small but passionate audience.

The bulk of the program presented unfamiliar but worthy music by German composers at the dividing point between the baroque and classical periods.

The music of Graun is worldly and forward looking, befitting the Kapellmeister of the most musically sophisticated autocrat of his time, Frederick the Great. The opening movement of his Le Fete Galante is fluent and Italianate, and the group put a real sheen on the string playing from the start. In the third movement (Allegretto) they laid bare the expressive music of the future struggling to be set free from the formalities of the past.

Graupner’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major is another piece of transitional music. Under the spell of Telemann, this Saxon brings a German sensibility to the new Italian forms. With its curt phrases and ponderous humor, the music is provincial in the best way – being rooted it its own place and space.

The piece now thought to be by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (an Overture in G, formerly attributed to J. S. Bach as BWV 1070) bears the traits of that difficult and disturbing composer. The remarkable Torneo with its downward spirals and the concluding Capriccio sound nothing like J. S. Bach, but fit right into his son’s eccentric formulations.

Baroque Band acquitted themselves admirably throughout with only a few intonation and ensemble problems noticeable particularly in the slower movements of the Graupner and Friedemann Bach pieces.

There were extensive notes on the composers and on the Collegium Musicum in German social life though it would have been nice to have had some information about the music itself, especially the more unfamiliar works. And someone needs to tone down the group’s marketing verbiage. Reflecting next season’s Angels and Demons theme, music from the court of Charles II is described as “Charlie’s Angels.”

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Grainger Ballroom at Symphony Center.

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