DECEMBER 7, 2019
H + H + Six Brandenburgs
by Virginia Newes
The enthusiastic ensemble (Chris Petre-Baumer photo)
The oldest continuously performing arts organization in America scored another first on Thursday night by giving the first concert at Klarman Hall at the Harvard Business School. The year-old, 1000-seat state-of-the-art auditorium designed by William Rawn Associates, which opened just over a year ago, boasts adjustable seating plans and lots of high tech, including a gigantic electronic reredos.* The concert previewed Handel & Haydn Society’s annual performances of all six of Bach’s Brandenburgs at the Gardner Museum, which this year will take place Saturday, December 7th and Sunday, December 8th.
In compiling the six concertos that he sent to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg, in 1723, Bach appears to have included works originating during the Weimar years (1708-17) and subsequently revised. Employing an uncommon variety of instrumental combinations and configuring the contrast between solo (concertino) and ensemble (ripieno) in myriad ways, “every one of the six concertos,” according to Christoph Wolff, “set a precedent in its scoring, and every one was to remain without parallel.” Concertmaster-violin soloist Aislinn Nosky, and continuo leader-harpsichord soloist Ian Watson, conducted. Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1046 in F Major) included a concertino of two hunting horns (Todd Williams and John Aubrey on “natural” French horns without valves), three oboes (Debra Nagy, Priscilla Herreid, and David Dickey), and solo violin (Susanna Ogata), and a ripieno consisting of two violin parts (Aislinn Nosky and Maureen Murchie), viola (Kyle Miller), and cello (Guy Fishman), along with a continuo group of viola da gamba ( Shirley Hunt), bass viol (Heather Miller Lardin), and harpsichord. Grouped in a semicircle, they played off one another through constant eye contact and foot-tapping, head-nodding, body language. Played with virtuosic flourish in the Allegro first movement, the horns dropped out in the second, giving way to a highly ornamented, rhapsodic accompanied duet for solo oboe and violin. The horns returned in the third movement, a jovial Allegro in 6/8 time that Bach reused in 1726 in the opening chorus of the celebratory cantata “Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten” (United discord of changing strings). A graceful Menuet in French style for full ensemble followed in alternation with three interludes: the first a “rustic” double-reed trio of two oboes and bassoon, the second a Polonaise for the ripieno violins and viola with continuo, and the third another rustic ensemble pitting the two horns against all three oboes in unison.
The Fifth Concerto, in D Major, featured Ian Watson as both continuo player and soloist, a dual role designed to show off Bach’s own formidable skills at the keyboard. As part of the continuo, Watson played the written-out left-hand part and realized harmonies in the right hand from the figured bass, all while conducting from the keyboard; as soloist, he played elaborate written-out parts for both hands. Emi Ferguson joined the concertino on a beautiful wooden Baroque flute of silvery tone; partnering with her in imitative dialogue, Nosky took the solo violin part with characteristic verve, literally dancing her way through the fast-moving opening Allegro and gigue-like Finale. In the second movement, for the three soloists alone, the harpsichord’s right-hand part augmented the trio-sonata texture of flute, violin, and continuo with an additional and highly affective melodic part. Watson’s playing of the extended written-out cadenza at the end of the first movement, tossed off at breakneck speed and doing full justice to the fine two-manual French-style instrument by Alan Winkler, brought spontaneous applause. In complete tonal contrast, Concerto No. 3 in G Major was scored for three groups of three strings each — violins, violas, and cellos — accompanied only by double bass and harpsichord continuo. In the first movement, the three string groups functioned as both soloists and ripienists, alternating between expository and episodic passages. Bach indicated only two chords by way of transition to the Allegro finale. Using these as a framework, Nosky improvised an extended “coloratura” connecting passage. In the very fast concluding dance in 12/8 meter, the cellos joined the continuo bass in a brilliant three-way motivic exchange with the violins and violas.
Klarman Hall with its 61-foot display, (Robert Benson Photography)
Concerto No. 2 in F Major opened the second half of the program with an unusual juxtaposition of solo instruments in treble range: trumpet (John Thiessen), alto recorder (Debra Nagy), oboe (Priscilla Herreid), and violin (Nosky). The fast tempi chosen for the ritornello sections, although they didn’t seem to be a problem for the other soloists, seemed a stretch for the trumpet to maintain in solo passages. In the second movement, the violin’s haunting melody was beautifully matched in imitation by the flute, oboe, and violin. The trumpet returned to open the brilliant Finale in a somewhat less frantic tempo, joined in turn by the oboe, then the violin, and finally the flute. Extended duets between shifting pairs of soloists were among the many highlights of this joyous movement. The only one of the six concertos without violins, Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major contrasts a group of three “modern” four-string instruments — two violas and a cello, with a trio of “old-fashioned” six-stringed instruments — two viole da gamba and a bass viol (violone). In the first movement, the warm, dark sound emitted by this low-range ensemble was captivating. A lyrical Adagio duet for two violas over a “walking” cello accompaniment led to a rousing Finale in syncopated triplets. Here the violas, in a display of virtuoso passage work, were joined by an equally active cello. After the sixth concerto’s exploration of low-range strings, the fourth concerto brought timbral contrast with a concertino of high-range soloists. A duet of treble recorders (Debra Nagy and Priscilla Herreid), anchored by the principal violin (Nosky), played opposite a full ripieno complement of strings and continuo. In the swinging first movement, the recorders traded motives in contrapuntal interplay or duetted sweetly in thirds, while the violin complemented them with its own bravura episodes. In keeping with the pastoral tradition long associated with recorders, the second movement highlighted echo effects between soloists and ensemble, with first one, then the other, leading in the exchange of sighing motives. Soloists and ripienists participated equally in the breakneck Presto of the concluding fugue. Nosky tossed off a bravura sequence of arpeggios, tremolos, and trills in an extended cadenza episode before joining the ripienists in the final exposition.
* Technology is a key component of the new facility. Anchored by a 1,250-square-foot digital canvas from SiliconCore Technology comprising 32 million pixels, the Klarman Hall auditorium features an audio system of more than 100 speakers as well as seating design that accommodates groups of up 250, 580, or a full house of 1,000. This flexible design allows for smaller gatherings as well as large-scale classes, conferences, and music and art performances. State-of-the-art wireless connections include 80 wireless Ethernet access points, 32 antennæ in the auditorium ceiling, and multigigabit Ethernet uplinks throughout the building. The second story and lower-level concourse houses studios to support podcasts, webinars, online learning, and a black box room for producing the HBS digital learning platform, HBX.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.