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EARLY MUSIC REVIEW

All in the Family

December 4, 2004

Trevor Pinnock

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By Joseph Sargent

Given the international reputation enjoyed by harpsichordist/conductor Trevor Pinnock, it's hard to believe that it took so long for him to make his way into Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's season. But make his way he finally did, and judging by his performance Saturday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, his debut was well worth the wait. In a "Fathers and Son" program of eighteenth-century works — by C.P.E. Bach, his father J.S. Bach and godfather Georg Philipp Telemann — Pinnock, soprano Marlis Petersen and the orchestra shone in a program that brought with it a delightful array of musical approaches, both across and within the individual works.

The showcase for Pinnock's appearance was an old standby, J.S. Bach's “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5, which is distinguished most notably by its first-movement harpsichord cadenza, a striking display of technical bravura. Pinnock's overall approach to the concerto was reserved and intimate, more like a private conversation than a public exhibition. The opening Allegro found solo violinist Lisa Weiss and flutist Stephen Schultz delivering their parts with almost demure modesty, punctuated only occasionally with bursts of aggressive energy. Pinnock negotiated the harpsichord part with warmth and grace, and the much-anticipated cadenza was flawlessly virtuosic, with Pinnock supplying enough nuance to prevent the endless figurations from sounding mechanical.

Austerity continued to permeate the middle-movement Affettuoso. The well-matched Weiss and Schultz played with sumptuously gentle tone, crafting exquisitely delicate melodies, while Pinnock returned to continuo mode with rock-solid support. The closing Allegro found the three soloists infusing their jovial melodic lines with genial playfulness, almost as if they were floating on air.

Doing it right

While Pinnock may have been the program's main headliner, due credit should be given to Petersen, who imbued Telemann's Ino with an animated stage presence and agile vocal dexterity. Composed just before the end of Telemann's astoundingly prolific life, this dramatic cantata — more like an extended scene, in fact — is a masterpiece of melodic inventiveness and emotional intensity. Taking as its subject the mythological character Ino, sister of the more famous (thanks to Handel) Semele, the story tracks Ino as she flees with her nephew from her insane husband, attempts suicide, and is subsequently elevated into the realm of the gods.

Petersen's approach perfectly matched the work's tumultuous character. She took command from the opening notes, proclaiming with fiery presence Ino's distress at her husband's madness-fueled attempts to kill her. Each rhetorical shift in the libretto's text prompted a change in vocal affect. In the aria “Ungöttliche Saturnia” (Ungodly Saturnia) Petersen masterfully deployed her dark, rich tone to various purposes — one moment raging fiercely against the goddess Juno for her vengeful actions; the next, withdrawing into perplexed sadness as she laments her fate. Repeated textual statements, here and elsewhere, gained added power through Petersen's reinterpretation of the text in light of what has passed. A bittersweet, melancholy flute duet preceded the arioso “Wo bin ich?” (Where am I), and as Ino moves from bewildered angst to relief at finding her nephew alive, Petersen sang with greater confidence and dramatic power. The closing “Tönt in meinen Lobgesang” (Join in my song of praise) allowed Petersen to display her appealing coloratura, lithe and never overbearing.

C.P.E. Bach had no qualms about declaring his four orchestral sinfonias “the greatest of their kind,” and while that judgment may best be left to the listener, the works certainly don't lack for colorful part writing. The spirit of Sturm und Drang permeates these pieces, as evidenced by several striking harmonic shifts and overall sense of restless energy. The Symphony No. 1 in D Major's opening measures give nary a hint of the stormy or stressful, however; the opening single-note repetitions serve as a setup for the ensuing panoply of moods, which the orchestra devoured with obvious zeal. Intense repeated notes suddenly withdrew into quiet lyricism in the woodwinds, and the many flourishing scale passages effortlessly flew off the violinists' bows. An extended soliloquy for flutes, violas and cellos in the Largo, a calm amid the storm, transitioned into a vigorous Presto that capped off an exciting, engaging interpretation.

A second symphony, No. 4 in G major, afforded the opportunity for further schizophrenic contrasts. The opening minuet's stately repeated tones burst suddenly into agitated rumblings, which themselves make an about-face to reveal gentle contrasting lyricism in the woodwinds. Confident handling of such quick changes is essential to the work's effectiveness, and the orchestra proved more than up to the task, never faltering amid the many transitions. The sedate Poco andante, filled with brooding intensity, features short, delicate motives that suddenly blossom into brief outbursts before receding once again. The orchestra's unflappable control of dynamics sustained this movement's mysterious atmosphere and accentuated the gloomy aspects of the closing Presto, where periodic instances of morose rumination disrupt the larger patina of sprightly joyfulness.

(Joseph Sargent, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford University, is a professional writer and editor as well as a performer, conductor and scholar of early music.)

©2004 Joseph Sargent, all rights reserved