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New Views of Bach

October 21, 2008

If you're one of those Bach devotees who can quote Brandenburg Concerto themes or name all the movements of an orchestral suite, Philharmonia Baroque's new twist on several orchestral classics might be just up your alley. In "Bach Reconstructed," a program devised by guest conductor Paul Goodwin, some of Bach's finest old wines have been placed into new bottles, rearranged into new performance contexts, or adapted to novel instrumental combinations.
So much the better if you're an oboe fan. Not only was this repertoire heavily oriented toward wind instruments (perhaps betraying Goodwin's own background as an oboist), it benefited from the presence of Gonzalo X. Ruiz, one of the finest Baroque oboists in the business. His virtuosic playing, along with the ensemble's characteristic polish and sense of detail, turned Saturday's performance, at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, into a lively and spirited affair, guaranteed to rouse even the most seasoned listener.

First among the novelties was a suite of 10 sinfonias, drawn from Bach's vast repertory of cantatas, and arranged by Goodwin himself. Aiming to push these rarely heard works into the spotlight, Goodwin also incorporates familiar elements, including a reworking of the first movement from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

To my ear, the suite's initial movements, weighted down by a preponderance of dense counterpoint and some jarring key contrasts, meshed less successfully than later ones. That said, the performance level consistently achieved the ensemble's customary gold standard, absent the odd intonation check or mistimed entrance. Particularly affecting were the slowly ululating motives of the Adagio from BWV 249 ("Kommt, eilet und laufet"), interwoven with Ruiz' rich oboe figurations, and a pair of Allegros from the same piece, showcasing the orchestra's protean facility with all manner of emotional moods.
Convivial Bach
Several scintillating segments later on offered additional highlights, including a sparkling performance of BWV 212 (the "Peasant Cantata"). Wildly fluctuating tempos, rhythms, and melodies conveyed a distinct sense of intoxication, a sly reference to Bach's librettist, Picander, who was Leipzig's Receiver of Liquor Taxes. The final movement, BWV 174 ("Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute"), showcased the sprightly Brandenburg theme in all its vigorous splendor against a lively horn melody, played with aplomb by natural hornists R.J. Kelley and Paul Avril.

Most people recognize Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 as a piece in B minor for solo flute and strings. Not so Ruiz. Citing recent research about the suite's original manuscript sources, plus a conviction that the solo part in this arrangement falls more readily into the oboe range, he has reconstructed the piece in A minor, for solo oboe.

From a performance perspective, Ruiz and PBO certainly offered a compelling case for the new version. Ruiz' impressive versatility, from graceful fluidity in the Polonaise to madcap figurations in the Bourees I/II and Badiniere, consistently dazzled. The orchestra, for its part, offered top-notch performances, including a crystalline French overture and nicely varied moods in the Polonaise. And if audience reaction plays any role in the final say on this arrangement, the rousing cheers and foot-stomps scored a decisive point for the oboist.

The novelty of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 lies in Bach's confounding of traditional instrumental roles. He used a violino piccolo (about a three-quarter-size violin) instead of a violin, and muted its solo role while elevating the usual supporting players, the oboes and horns. Here Goodwin's twist was to use an actual violino piccolo, a precious commodity these days, which in Carla Moore's capable hands displayed a sweet, strident, almost toylike sound. Particularly memorable in this performance were the Allegro's vibrant, antiphonal passages between winds and strings and the rustic, dancelike Polacca, a dynamic combination of crisp energy and unfettered jubilation.

Joseph Sargent holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Stanford University and teaches at the University of San Francisco.