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A Complex Sophistication

May 15, 2007

With its concerts last weekend, the American Bach Soloists completed the fourth year of its Bach cycle, an elaborate multiseason project featuring a wide variety of the composer's most important works. The program on Saturday night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley was an exciting grab bag of instrumental music, featuring sinfonias from the cantatas BWV 174 and 42, the first Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1046), the Concerto for Harpsichord and Two Recorders (BWV 1057), and the first Orchestral Suite (BWV 1066).
Each time ABS takes the stage, it presents suave performances as sumptuous as the most delicate chocolate dessert. Only occasionally, however, do listeners have to suffer through some brussels sprouts en route to the treats. This was one of those concerts.

The group's performance of the First Brandenburg was a case in point. ABS performed the opening movement with such élan and abandon that the concerto sounded fresh, even to ears that have heard the work dozens of times. Conductor Jeffrey Thomas' fine tempo choice for the second movement, too, was much appreciated. Groups too often translate "adagio" as "turgid" for this work, but Thomas presented a version at once lyrical and directional, and the movement exhibited an ideal pacing that accentuated both its remarkable melodic content and its complex geometry.

The following Allegro movement, however, was marred by problems from the winds. The blemishes transcended the obligatory wrong notes from the natural horns, which are always pardonable sins, given the excruciatingly unidiomatic treatment to which the composer subjects them. However, whether because of awkward tempo choice, cumbersome composition, or lack of sufficient preparation time (which seems the most likely culprit), the winds consistently pushed ahead of the rest of the band, causing some uncomfortable ensemble problems right up to the final moments of the movement.

However, all sections redeemed themselves with the complex of dances that comprise the final "movement," with exquisite playing from the double reeds in the first trio. The horns got their moment to shine in the second trio, more than compensating for their earlier rushing, and reminding us that John Boden and Paul Avril stand among the world's most accomplished on their instrument.
Blazing Passagework
The centerpiece of the concert was the group's presentation of the rarely heard Concerto for Harpsichord and Two Recorders, BWV 1057. Musical polymath Debra Nagy set down her oboe to join Judith Linsenberg on recorders, with Michael Sponseller assuming the helm at the keyboard.

The evening's program notes stated that this work was "simply a transcription and transposition of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto," but there is nothing simple about this particular transcription. In crafting the piece, Bach set for himself a particular compositional challenge. He composed the Brandenburg version for violin and two recorder soloists. This transcription retains the two wind solos, transferring the extensive violin figuration into the keyboard part, which is augmented by alternating continuo roles and highly idiomatic virtuoso passagework. Critics have long held differing views about Bach's degree of success with this transcription. Albert Schweitzer, for instance, famously lambasted all of the concerto transcriptions, and decreed, "We are under no special obligation to incorporate these transcriptions in our concert programs."

Those of us curious about how Bach's reputedly ornate continuo style might have sounded, however, take issue with Schweitzer's out-of-hand dismissal. Bach's extensive use of right-hand doubling of the ripieno strings creates a scintillating impression, and consistently wrested attention away from the recorder soloists in this performance. Moreover, audiences always gobble up the blazing passagework that marks Bach's concerto writing for the keyboard.

Sponseller is no stranger to Bay Area audiences or to ABS. Winner of the group's 1998 Soloists' Competition, he has been a perennial favorite in the ensemble's ranks. His ferocious technique always shines in virtuoso music, and this performance was no exception. Sponseller polished off mountainous heaps of passagework without breaking a sweat.

But his skills come at a price. His playing never lacks sparkle, but it often lacks luster. I always sit on the edge of my seat during his moments of prestissimo glory, but have to cringe at a distinctive lack of subtlety. The second and third movements of Saturday night's performance were particularly bland (if note-perfect), with the harpsichord soloist steamrolling over moments of harmonic interest and making phrasing decisions that can be only generously described as happenstance.

There were rare moments of grace in the last movement when Linsenberg and Nagy came into the spotlight with delicate sighing motives and rounded ornaments in parallel motion. However, it was difficult to get the bad taste out of my mouth after Sponseller lumbered through the second movement's brief, written out cadenza. As a general complaint, the entire ensemble suffered from a bit of disconnect.

Perhaps the experience would have been better-coordinated had Thomas sat on the bench for this portion of the program. The anachronistic "Baroque conductor" rarely bothers me, especially when he or she inspires such finely tuned results from ensembles as does Thomas. But Thomas was perched behind the harpsichord's lid, with the soloists placed awkwardly far downstage from the rest of the group. Had the band played without a conductor for this concerto, the ensemble could have stood in a more collegial layout. Sponseller (or possibly Linsenberg) could then have assumed the role of leader-soloist, and the whole could have enjoyed a greater flexibility.

Another small stumbling block arose in between works. The concerto's placement on the program before a closing orchestral work necessitated a complex shifting of harpsichord, chairs, stands, stand lights, and personnel before the final work. The audience was treated to an awkward scene of chatting musicians and frantic stage managers bumbling around the stage in a vain attempt to get things quickly rearranged.
A Gutsy Close
The program closed with the Orchestral Suite in C, BWV 1066, thus fully washing away any sins committed earlier in the concert. The orchestral suites are famously awkward pieces, and the general rule is that groups should stick them first on a program, so that audiences and critics can more easily forget any difficulties that the groups encounter.

Rules are made to be broken, however. Thomas's pulse relations between sections in the overture were masterfully handled, so that the entire complex movement gelled exquisitely. The double reeds got another chance to shine in this work, as well. Sonorously lyrical in their bourrée, raucous and brassy in their passepied, they proved themselves a remarkable trio of musicians. Ending a program with such an uncomfortable work was a gutsy thing to do. Thomas and ABS proved that they not only had guts, but the refinement to finish a difficult program with a grace and elegance that would have been difficult to surpass.

All in all, the evening's performance was a success. Each time ABS takes the stage, it proves itself to be a flexible, dynamic, and eminently interesting group of musicians. Some interpretive and programming bumps baroqued the pearl, but the beauty and sophistication that the group is capable of achieving make this critic always eager to hear what it will do next.

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is currently enrolled in the graduate program in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.