Bracing Bach fit for the season from Chamber Music Society

Fri Dec 18, 2015 at 11:50 am

By Tim Sawyier

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Friday night at Alice Tully Hall.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night at the Harris Theater.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered its third annual performance of Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos at the Harris Theater on Thursday night. The evening saw an abundance of fine one-to-a-part playing from the Society’s regular members as well as guests in what is becoming a holiday tradition in Chicago, as well as their home base in New York.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 began the proceedings. The work’s opening movement was convincingly jocular and boisterous, though the three solo oboes were somewhat lost in its thick texture. The ensuing Adagio featured limpid conversational lines exchanged between lead oboist Stephen Taylor, violinist Daniel Phillips, and the ensemble’s continuo cadre, though Phillips indulged in some isolated slides of questionable taste. Unfortunately that trend in Phillips’ playing became a headline in the 6/8 Allegro, where his solo playing was overly aggressive. While the violin writing of this movement is especially demanding on a modern instrument, having been originally intended for a violino piccolo, there seemed little stylistic attempt to mask its difficulties.

A gracious, tastefully inflected Polonaise led by violinist Paul Huang was the highlight of the series of dances that constitute the closing movement, while the wind trios were played with commitment but dubious ornamentation. Horn players Jennifer Montone and Julie Landsman shone throughout the entire work, deftly navigating its exacting high-register technical passages.

The program continued with Concerto No. 6, featuring violists Paul Neubauer and Richard O’Neill as soloists. The ensemble, in this work comprised entirely of low strings, had a robust, earthy timbre throughout. The opening movement had a driving vigor courtesy of Neubauer and O’Neill, and the arioso Adagio ma non tanto was poised and affecting. The seven-member consort executed the witty imitative writing of the closing Allegro with effortless magnanimity.

Trumpeter Brandon Ridenour’s playing in Concerto No. 2, which closed the first half, was the highlight of the evening. It is hard to imagine a better rendition of this work’s notoriously difficult piccolo trumpet part. Ridenour’s playing had a gorgeous clarion quality completely devoid of the unsteadiness one so often hears in live performances of Brandenburg 2. The other soloists—flutist Sooyun Kim, oboist James Austin Smith, and violinist Chad Hoopes—were able partners in the clinic Ridenour put on, their individually luminous tones melding in the Concerto’s central (trumpet-less) Andante.

The Fifth Concerto began the second half, with violinist Erin Keefe, flutist Demarre McGill, and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss in the solo roles. McGill’s tone was pure and supple, and Keefe’s playing nimble across the board. Weiss brought a refined ebb and flow to the first mammoth keyboard cadenza of Western music, which comes at the end of the opening Allegro. The three soloists created a haunting, ancient-sounding aura in the aptly marked Affetuoso, and the closing Allegro had a jubilant lilt adorned with Weiss’ fluid passagework.

In Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the briefest of the set, the two contrapuntal Allegro movements were bustling and sounded almost urban in the ensemble’s enthusiastic hands. Cellist Daniel McDonough led rambunctious interjections from his comrades Inbal Segev and Jakob Koranyi, and first violinist Keefe’s playing was again blithe and fleet.

Violinist Huang and flutists Kim and McGill took the solo leads in the Fourth Brandenburg to close the evening. The Allegro was buoyant with elevated playing from Kim and McGill, and Huang whipped off the movement’s florid runs with untroubled dexterity. The two flutists achieved a beautifully melded sonority in the breathy, sigh-filled Andante. Playful interaction between the three soloists was particularly on display in the final Presto, which saw rarified playing from all involved and brought the evening to a jubilant close.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returns to the Harris Theater February 16, when violinist Philip Setzer, cellist David Finckel, and pianist Wu Han will perform Beethoven’s Trio in G Major, Op. 1 No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, and Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio in E Minor, Op. 90.


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