Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review: Portland Baroque Orchestra exuberant in Brandenburgs and Telemann

By Lorin Wilkerson

The Portland Baroque Orchestra presented their second-to-last concert of the season on Saturday evening, May 10 at the First Baptist Church in down town Portland. Talk about going out with a bang: they played three of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti (1, 3, and 6) as well as a grandiose orchestral suite by Telemann. This exciting concert marked the close of a two-year cycle in which the PBO has brought all six Brandenburgs to Portland, but is also a harbinger of big things to come from this group during their Silver Anniversary next year. The PBO has been invited to perform the entire set of Brandenburgs for the Oregon Bach Festival in 2009, marking the first time an authentic period orchestra will perform at this august event. Next year they will also play two concerts in smaller Oregon cities. Having grown up in small-town Oregon, I think this is an extremely laudable undertaking, and I’m sure that wherever they play they will be as warmly received as they were here Saturday night.

While the Brandenburg Concerti have long been ranked at the top of my desert island list (e.g., if I were to be marooned on a desert island for the rest of my life [with some miraculous provision enabling me to listen to CDs] with only one work to listen to, it would be these six concerti), I have always felt that #1 is rather ‘clunky’ compared to the rest. The blatting of horns in odd syncopation to the rest of the orchestra’s rather straightforward movement, the strings harrumphing along at the root of a surprisingly dense texture, its four movements standing in contrast to the traditional baroque three-movement symmetry—these things have always led me to consider #1 a sort of ungainly stepchild in comparison to the other five. That’s not to say I didn’t love it, it just never occupied the special place in my heart that these other treasures have.

Enter the PBO on Saturday night. Just watching as the orchestra took their places told the discerning baroque concertgoer that something unusual was afoot: this was a big group assembling on stage. A trio of cellos, a pair of violas, a bassoon and continuo gathered with a whole throng of violins at the start. As if that weren’t enough, out came a pair of horns, three oboes and a few more violins for good measure! The house was sold out (and it was extremely warm inside), and as artistic director Monica Huggett took the stage the excitement in the audience was palpable.

The brisk tempo right at the start did not disappoint. This may have been the fastest I have heard this work played, and that in itself was refreshing and lent to the opening Allegro a crispness that dispelled one of my private gripes with the recordings I have heard of #1, and that is the ponderous exactitude of tempo. R.J. Kelley and Paul Avril had a difficult task with the baroque horns that are the centerpiece of the first movement, and their playing was virtually flawless. Even at this speed there was none of the warbling or misaligned pitches that one occasionally hears even with modern French horns, let alone these valveless descendents of the original cor de chasse. Lecturer and oboist Debra Nagy had explained that the opening horn motif was an authentic Saxon hunting call, and Kelley and Avril delivered with an air of true majesty. The brass and winds executed a delightful, rapid-fire call-and-response with crystal clarity.

Baroque oboe specialist Gonzalo Ruiz intoned the sonorous mystery of the Adagio almost hypnotically, and as Carla Moore answered on the piccolo violin, she played this tricky instrument so sweetly that it belied its origins as a bawdy Polish tavern fiddle. The third movement was marked by a lusty trio for oboes and bassoon. Listening once again to a horn and wind dialogue in the fourth movement reminded me why I love Baroque music so much: this delicate yet somehow raucous filigree would crumble to dust if everything weren’t placed just so, and yet there it was, exposed, naked and perfect for all the world to hear.

The PBO’s interpretation of #1 on Saturday night gave me the most enjoyment I have ever had listening to this particular work. When an ensemble “re-interprets” a well-loved chestnut, the new iteration is often described as “bold” or “visionary” in some way. The great vision I heard in the PBO’s Brandenburg #1 was simply that it was balanced and integrated in a way I have yet to hear in any recording. The horns didn’t stick out, the tempo didn’t drag, the violino piccolo was not scratchy or wailing. This music is so dense, complex and rapid that it would’ve been easy to just hammer it out and/or plod along (as I often hear on CDs), yet the PBO skillfully negotiated these treacherous waters.

The second work on the bill was Brandenburg #3, which paired trios of violins, violas, and cellos with a basso continuo consisting of double bass and clavier. This work galloped right from the outset as well, and these marvelous string players unflinchingly tossed up Bach’s polyphonic wall with such spontaneous zest that at times it felt more like watching a group of old friends jam around a campfire. Huggett played a selection from Bach’s G-major violin concerto (BWV 1021) as a cadenza in the two-chord Adagio that forms the second movement, and she phrased it without any excessive sentimentality, rendering it as a pure, simple statement.
The way they tossed an airy motif from one player to another in the closing Allegro was like listening to a rivulet cascade down nine instruments one-at-a-time, all the way from the top violin to the bottom cello, and then suddenly it was grounded by a saucy, grumbling continuo joined by the cellos. It was a joy to see how much fun they were having while playing #3; wry grins would suddenly appear on one face or another as everything was clicking and they hurtled along full-throttle.

Following the break was #6, the final work in the set which is scored for treble instruments; the highest notes we heard came from Huggett on the viola. She was joined by one more viola, cello, two violas da gamba, and continuo. Bach wrote a lot of good music for the viola, an instrument that he was especially fond of playing, and this was a treat for me as I have not heard Huggett play viola before. The abundance of low strings lent this piece a rich, dark timbre, and it was a marked departure from the other works of the evening. The violas were the featured melodic instrument in #6, and the Adagio ma non tanto of the second movement heard the pick-pock of this pair over a measured sawing in the violas da gamba. The final movement closed with a quick cat-and-mouse theme wherein each viola scurried incessantly after the other.

The switch to the Telemann Overture-Suite in F Major saw a return of the grande ensemble from the Brandenburg #1. The work consisted of a set of French dances bracketed between an overture and a closing fanfare. The exuberant hunting call from the horns that opened the overture sounded almost like a coronation march, and seeing this large group sway to and fro reminded me of a scene from the film Tous les Matins du Monde, where Marin Marais stands before the magnificent Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi, a group of the French King’s proud instrumentalists stewing in the rich juices of their own fecund musicianship. Stylistic, dotted French rhythms abounded in the Telemann, and the whole enterprise smacked of the stateliness and royalty that would have been associated with this size of ensemble in Telemann’s day. A lightning-quick Badinerie that couldn’t have lasted more than 45 seconds was preceded by a spritely Menuet that gave us yet another trio of bassoon and oboes. I loved the title of the seventh movement: Rejouissance, or ‘Rejoicing.’ For me, that word aptly summed up the entire evening.

The PBO gave us yet another remarkable concert Saturday night, and I left the venue thinking that I would dearly love to have a recording of their interpretation of Brandenburg #1. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and they will release a CD of their version of this epic set, the way they’ve recently done with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

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