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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: CMS Dazzles with Uplifting Brandenburg Concertos

REVIEW: CMS Dazzles with Uplifting Brandenburg Concertos

DECEMBER 17, 2018

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos may be old, but they never get old. New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's annual December tradition is one of the city's top tickets, and this year, I was fortunate to partake of this invigorating traversal of Bach's instrumental masterpieces.

Photo (and top photo): Tristan Cook

Photo (and top photo): Tristan Cook

Bach sent this set of six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, Christian Ludwig, in 1721, writing to him:

"...Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition..." 

He went on,

"...begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him."

Photo: Tristan Cook

Photo: Tristan Cook

Little talents, indeed. Yet these pieces were not immediately celebrated, instead relegated to the bottom of a drawer until rediscovered in the middle of the nineteenth century. Thankfully, they are now perennial classics, providing indelible entertainment to a clamoring audience at Alice Tully Hall.

The musicians assembled by CMS were in spectacular form Sunday evening, each of the Brandenburg concertos calling for a different line up of instruments, but one constant is harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon. In the Fifth Concerto in D Major, which begins with the violin and flute dominating, but then evolves into a showpiece for the harpsichord, Bordignon hypnotized the room with velvety smooth legato in the first movement cadenza's spinning circles of thirty-second notes.

The Sixth Concerto in B-flat, featuring two violas played by Paul Neubauer and Matthew Lipman in close dialogue, was given a sprightly performance. The pulsing, tender second movement was especially touching, and the third movement bursted with triumph. David Washburn, dazzled in the high-wire act that is the astonishingly high trumpet feature in the Second Concerto in F Major that closed the program's first half.

Two horns, Stewart Rose and David Byrd-Marrow, added warmth and heft to the First Concerto in F Major, the largest in terms of instrumentation, and the only one consisting of four movements. The Fourth Concerto in G Major features a dazzling violin solo played brilliantly by Yura Lee, in a show-stealing display of virtuosity. The rip-roaring tempo kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

Photo: Tristan Cook

Photo: Tristan Cook

The evening concluded with the Third Concerto, also in G major, a concerto grosso for strings and continuo only. Violinist Ani Kavafian brought something special to her cadenza over the single bar Adagio, before the concert's rousing gigue of a finale.

In her welcoming introductory remarks, CMS co-artistic director Wu Han hailed the Brandenburg Concertos as "uplifting" and "the best of Western civilization." Bach wrote a lot of great music in his lifetime, but there is a notable synthesis of egalitarian musical democracy and rhetorical expression in these works. We can only hope that Western civilization proves to be as enduring.

Upcoming:

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Brandenburg Concertos

Tuesday, December 18, 2018, 7:30PM

Alice Tully Hall

And, for fun, P.D.Q. Bach’s Bach Portrait:

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