REVIEW: CMS's Baroque Collection Transports to Another Time
DECEMBER 10, 2018
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
‘Tis the season...for Baroque music? The holidays certainly seem to increase our appetite for music from the period 1600 to 1750. Christmas is, if anything, an annual celebration of our cultural roots, a time to reconnect with the Ghost of Christmas Past. We tell the same stories every year, passing them from one generation to the next, and we sing the same songs, keeping alive a special canon of music that goes back eons. Many of the Christmas carols we sing now ("God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen") actually emerged in the previous era, the Renaissance. George Frideric Handel's warhorse 1741 oratorio Messiah is one of the Baroque era's most enduring pieces ("Hallelujah!"), performed every December, anywhere a chorus and orchestra can be found. And New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has its Baroque Festival: a concert of assorted works of Baroque chamber music called the Baroque Collection and a week later, they perform a separate evening of the complete Brandenburg Concertos of J. S. Bach.
Presented at Alice Tully Hall, CMS's Baroque Collection combines a museum-worthy curation of pieces representing some of the variety in the music of the time, the sundry musical forms, performance settings (sacred versus secular), and the increasing technical implications of the instruments for which they wrote. This year, the Chamber Music Society has assembled an impressive band of virtuosos to present a sumptuous feast that really immerses the audience in this musical world.
CMS has a nicely balanced approach to presenting Baroque music. Some ensembles are dedicated specifically to Early Music, playing on "period instruments" -- valveless horns, catgut strings, etc. -- and the results can be illuminative. But, modern instruments have their advantages. Here, aside from the harpsichord (which doesn't really have a modern equivalent, the piano being an entirely different creature), they play on modern instruments, but with an historically informed performance practice. Anchored by harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss, master of the basso continuo, in tight collaboration with expressive cellist Efe Baltacigil and dexterous bassist Xavier Foley (judiciously employed), the evening's festivities include a generous helping of Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, and an invigorating palette cleanser by Bach.
But the concert opens with a name reminding us that fame is fleeting. Johann Joachim Quantz was very famous in his day. He was flute teacher and court musician to Frederick the Great (King of Prussia 1740-1786) and composed some 300 such concertos for his pupil. Even Frederick the Great's flute skills must have paled in comparison to those of Sooyun Kim, one of today's most successful virtuoso soloists on the instrument. Barefooted under her long red dress, rooted to the ground, Kim commanded the stage as soloist in Quantz's Concerto No. 161 in G Major for Flute, Strings, and Continuo dating from 1745, a bright, bustling three movement piece featuring a dazzling flute part with dramatic cadenzas. The music's contrapuntal texture, the supporting strings burbling away, sometimes politely accompanying, other times, coming to the fore with a countermelody, is brought to life vivaciously. Notably, the violins and viola play standing up (as do the trumpet and bassoon later on), which enhances the immediacy of their constant interplay, even when playing background bits.
The program featured two more instrumental concertos, these by Vivaldi, most famous for his set of four called The Four Seasons. In fact, the Italian composer produced around 500 such works, and they share a certain love of rhythm and dizzying figurations that work to the instruments' strengths. Bassoonist Marc Goldberg played Vivaldi's Concerto in A Minor for Bassoon, Strings, and Continuo from 1720, one of 39 concertos he wrote for the bassoon, and a marvelous traversal through the characterful low woodwind instrument's wide, agile range.
Violinist Erin Keefe brought the audience to its feet with the driving, athletic violin solo in the Concerto in D Major for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, "Il Grosso Mogul," named for a great Muslim dynasty in power in India during the composer's lifetime. The earthy torrent of notes pouring from the fiddle were reminiscent of the writing in The Four Seasons, and I wondered, "which season is this?"
Instrumental concertos are not the only works on display in this Collection, however. The Baroque period was also alive with innovative ways of blending the human voice with instruments. Extraordinary soprano Joélle Harvey can do things not many vocalists can do. In a sampling of arias and other pieces by Handel and Bach, her luminous singing became the emotional heart of this concert.
Both Bach and Handel seemed fond of the combination of soprano and trumpet. Harvey, alongside trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, joined the stage for a pair of contrasting arias, one from a cantata that Handel penned in 1713 to impress Queen Anne in his newly adopted home of England, "Eternal Source of Light Divine," and Bach's delightful aria "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" from the eponymous Cantata No. 51. The Handel is long lined, noble, and lyrical, while the Bach dashes out of the gate, rife with fanfares and a bevy of activity.
In two arias from Il delirious amoroso, a Handel cantata, Harvey floated high above the staff, singing with great agility and emotional connection. This is intoxicating singing. Her ability to communicate within the stylistic confines of the Baroque manner is transcendent.
Both halves of the concert featured a large serving of Handel da capo aria, the standard form of the day in dramatic vocal music. An A-B-A form, the return of the A section is embellished with showy improvisations and ornaments. Harvey and Ridenour excelled at this highly specialized art. In the program's second half, "Let the Bright Seraphim," from Handel's oratorio Samson, was given an ecstatic account.
All of the musicians were superb, and because of the contrapuntal nature of Baroque music, especially in the concertos, each had an opportunity to strut their stuff. On the violin, Francisco Fullana frequently led the proceedings with his energetic bow arm. Kristen Lee also brought violin playing of precision and beauty, and violist Richard O'Neill brought up the rear, the small number of strings requiring each player to contribute as if they were soloist. On the bass line, always setting the tempo and mood, Efe Baltacigil occasionally found moments to shine, and bassist Xavier Foley was a pillar of strength, bringing perfect intonation to the proceedings.
The star of the show might have been harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss. Tastefully honoring the historically observed rules of articulation and phrasing without succumbing to mannerism is a subtle art. Weiss masterfully paces the ebb and flow in the music, his arpeggiations rolling upward from the bass line like tendrils of nature, and decorative ornaments were understated, never drawing attention, but forming an essential aspect of the Baroque textures here.
It was a sizable concert, serving to transport the audience to an era when we had more time on our hands to just listen, when attention spans were longer. But, it was never boring, the music having been so brilliantly and zestfully brought to life.
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center