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Hidden Treasures on the Old Post Road


The Musicians of the Old Post Road fill a special niche in the musical life of greater Boston by providing intimate Baroque chamber music, well chosen — on the basis of good ideas, impressive historical research, and experienced musical taste — and well performed on period instruments (chiefly replicas). Founded in 1989, they get better and better with the years.

They presented a concert of “Hidden Treasures from the German Baroque” on January 28 and 29, at the First Parish in Wayland and the Old South Church in Boston, respectively. This review is of the former. The “treasures” may be hidden — that is, they were written by relatively obscure composers, Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, Christoph Graupner, Johann Friedrich Fasch, Johann David Heinichen, and Johann Adolf Hasse, all working as Kapellmeister in early 18th-century German courts — but these particular pieces are certainly worth “finding.”

Members of the core group — co-Artistic Directors Daniel Ryan (cello) and Suzanne Stumpf (traverso flute), Sarah Darling (violin and viola), and Michael Bahmann (harpsichord)—were joined by Marilyn Boenau (bassoon), and Owen Watkins (soprano and bass chalumeaux). The term chalumeau originally referred to the chanter of a bagpipe, but in the late 17th century evolved to become a transitional instrument between the recorder and the clarinet. Like the recorder, it comes in different sizes (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), and retains its characteristic foot joint. Like the clarinet, it is a reed instrument, and sounds more mellifluous than the oboe. In addition to performing widely on all these instruments, Owen Watkins makes then in Friedrich von Huene’s Workshop in Brookline.

All the works chosen were in sonata-form, far enough away from the dance suites from which they originated to reveal some lingering moments and delightful surprises yet close enough to have retained their charm. The first movement of Janitsch’s Quartet in C Major for traverso, viola, cello, and continuo is a lilting Larghetto alla siciliano, and the musicians had plenty of chances to provide affekt in this bottom-weighted piece, the cello serving as both a solo and continuo instrument. Graupner’s Trio Sonata in C Major for bass chalumeau, bassoon, and continuo, was even heavier on the bottom, especially the bassoon, which was bright and a bit overpowering throughout, skilled as Ms. Boenau clearly is. The bassoon contrasted well, however, with the mellower chalumeau, of which Watkins is clearly a master, especially in the second, Allegro movement full of contrapuntal lines. Fasch’s Sonata in D Major for traverso, violin, bassoon, and continuo is a typical slow-fast-slow-fast construction, memorable for the beautifully matched lyricism of Stumpf and Darling.

Another work by Graupner appeared after intermission: his Trio Sonata in d minor for traverso, viola (originally viola d’amore), and continuo, with the curiously named first movement, Senz’ acceleranza (without speeding up) carefully observed. The Allegro in this piece is marked ma non presto (i.e., fast, but not really fast), and is full of sequential phrases. In general the Allegros in this concert were all about the same comfortable tempo, as were the Vivaces, so acceleration was unlikely anyway. Heinichen’s Concerto in G major for traverso, bassoon, cello, and continuo, is another bottom-heavy piece, in this case almost a reverse trio-sonata; that is, instead of two high and one low instruments, the tessitura is for two low and one high. Here again, Ryan successfully managed the dual roles soloist and continuo player, not an easy feat. Hasse’s Quartet in F Major for soprano chalumeau, violin (originally oboe), bassoon, and continuo contained many hi-low instrument family duets — violin plus cello, or chalumeau plus bassoon — each duo delightfully questioning and answering each other. The piece ends with a long phrase in unison, of all things, which brought a nice chuckle from the audience in the well-filled early-nineteenth-century church.

As a kind of programmed encore, to bring all players together at once, the Musicians performed their own arrangement of the aria “Mein gläubiger Herze, frohlocke sing” (My heart ever faithful, sing praises”) from Cantata No. 68 by Johann Sebastian Bach, originally for soprano, oboe, violin, violoncello piccolo, and continuo. As Ryan explained, the “violoncello piccolo,” or five-string cello with an added e string, was frequently used in Germany until well into the 18th century. At least eight of the cantatas written by Bach between 1724 and 1726 specify such an instrument, although some say this simply meant a higher tuning. The instrumental version is entirely appropriate, given the fact that the piece is based on two dance forms (gavotte and bourée), competing with each other. It made a rollicking end to a fine concert.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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