Indiana History Center
July 8 and 10
With a weekend skipped for the Fourth holidays, the Festival Music Society's Early Music Festival returned to bring us into more familiar territory than during its first weekend. Featuring stellar harpsichordist Byron Schenkman, the six-member Seattle Baroque group centered its Friday and Sunday programs on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the great composer having been completely excluded from last summer's festival. Joining Schenkman were violinists Ingrid Matthews and Janet Strauss; violist Stephen Creswell (appearing only for Friday's concert); viola da gamba and cellist Emily Walhout; and lutenist Lucas Harris. Seattle Baroque performed in the second round of Early Music Festival concerts.
Entitled "Bach Harpsichord Concertos," Friday's program featured three of the seven - or possibly eight - Bach contributed to a genre he created (i.e., concertos with a stringed keyboard as the solo instrument). Of these, the greatest is No. 1 in D Minor, BWV 1052, which FMS musical director Frank Cooper saved for last. Bach's No. 4 in A Major, BWV 1055, opened the concert, with No. 5 in F Minor, BWV 1056, appearing before intermission. The Seattle-based group inserted three short pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau between Bach's No. 4 and No. 5 and a chamber sonata by George Frideric Handel between No. 5 and No. 1 - to complete their late-Baroque-period program.
Rameau (1683-1764), now generally recognized as the greatest French Baroque composer (and theoretician), wrote, in 1741, "Pièces de clavecin en concert," a set of suites for harpsichord and a small string complement. Of these, we heard three of them from his Concert I, featuring a very small complement - only Matthews and Walhout - joining Schenkman. The hallmark of French writing from this period is ornamentation ... ornamentation ... ornamentation. And Schenkman and his people nicely revealed all the composer's intricate textures, creating a good mix of the intellectual versus the emotional.
Handel's (1685-1759) Sonata in G, Op. 5 No. 4, has two "sonata" movements and three dance movements, the latter three weaker (more note spinning) than the former, which more strongly suggest the Handel of his great opera and oratorio arias. Our players gave the material their best, which was, in fact, pretty good.
Listening to any Bach harpsichord concerto with just one string to each part requires an adjustment as the composer envisioned these works for a massed string complement (i.e., a small string orchestra), and that's what's usually presented. Still, the Seattle players gave us an excellent balance between their five strings and harpsichord. The only performance issue was Schenkman's excessive use of rubato (literally "robbed," it means the temporary slowing of tempo for "expressive" purposes), which does nothing here but "rob" Bach's motor rhythms of their forward drive. Schenkman and his people did give us an effective, dynamically-nuanced delivery of all those notes, however.
Schenkman saved his real thunder for Sunday's concert, one which saw a completely filled IHC Theater. The harpsichordist soloed in Bach's English Suite in A Minor, BWV 807. His command of Bach's miraculous keyboard figurations, from the dramatic Prélude to the final Gigue, was awesome - and with the merest suggestions of rubato, too little to ruffle these feathers. This performance was the high point of the entire weekend.
The theme of Sunday's concert centered on the Baroque trio sonata, and began with an example from its first exponent, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). The next one was by a Dutch unknown, Johann Adam Reincken, who lived (1623-1722) an unheard of 99 years. Bach's Trio Sonata in C, BWV 1037 concluded. The Seattle Baroque players easily held the standard they had established Friday.
Three weekends from now, come early: The Red Priest of London will once again hit town, guaranteeing packed houses and concluding this year's Early Music Festival.