Arcadia Players under the direction of Ian Watson came to town last night. The playing of this merry band of rollicking musicians enlivened Arlington Street Church with concerti by Mozart and Haydn. Arcadia, now in its twenty-fourth season, is a historical performance ensemble with repertoire ranging from viol consorts through Beethoven’s symphonies and concerti for fortepiano. Based in Western Massachusetts, the players present an annual concert series in the Pioneer Valley, and work as Ensemble in Residence at The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst. This “Baroque orchestra and chamber ensemble” bills itself as “New England’s Period Instrument Ensemble.”
Since Arcadia’s repertoire extends beyond the Baroque period, Boston audiences might wonder what distinguishes this group from the Handel & Haydn Society, especially since so many of the performers are drawn from the ranks of that larger ensemble. Both groups draw from the same body of repertoire (even performing the same works during their multi-year histories of performance) and, since 1986 (in the case of Handel & Haydn Society), are both historical performance ensembles. Both use historical instruments (either old ones set up in Baroque fashion, or modern reconstructions), and both use a lower tuning (Arcadia Players tuned last night to A 430). The difference, I think, is one of scale: Arcadia Players present smaller ensemble performances that are more intimate, closer to chamber performances, than a typical Handel & Haydn Society event populating Symphony Hall. That said, last night’s audience in Arlington Street Church was sadly minuscule. Clearly there are local audiences interested in historical performance, so I hope Boston will show greater interest the next time they come to town.
The concert began with the Overture to Bastien et Bastienne, K. 50, by Mozart. This brief piece, “short and sweet” in the words of Ian Watson, was a study in intimacy and restrained playing. Written when Mozart was twelve, this one-act singspiel narrates a bucolic love-story between a shepherdess, her dearest friend, and a soothsayer/magician; the music combines French and German elements. The overture, running just under two minutes, opens with a theme startlingly familiar to audiences today as the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; generally accepted opinion holds that both draw from a shared musical source not yet identified, since the likelihood of Beethoven ever having heard Mozart’s overture is slim and there is no evidence either way. In any event, the Overture as presented was a study in intimate declaration, played with verve and excitement. Without the two preceding large E-flat major chords, Mozart’s use of this theme (in G major) takes on a gentler character, comes across as brighter thanks to the key signature and the use of open strings resonating on the tonic, yet retains a sense of excitement. It was an apt beginning to this concert.
Ian Watson led the ensemble from the fortepiano in Mozart’s Keyboard Concerto no. 12 in A-Major, K.414. Watson met with grace the challenges posed by Mozart’s demanding keyboard writing embedded in a crystalline musical structure. The Allegro was full of ebullience, with a lilting, dancing theme; the Andante, with muted strings, full of tenderness and restraint. (This movement quotes from an overture by J. C. Bach and is Mozart’s elegy on the death of his mentor and friend.) The final Rondeau: Allegretto tries to combine light and dark; Arcadia Players and Ian Watson captured this tension well, with classical restraint helping modulate the extreme characters of the preceding two movements and creating a balanced whole. The concerto maintained an ease and grace throughout.
Andrew Schwartz joined the ensemble for Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 191. For me, this performance was the highlight of the evening. Schwartz, playing on a baroque bassoon, had a sweetly singing tone throughout with a dark woodiness not often heard on modern bassoons. The sound was gorgeous and, for me, made this concerto a whole new piece. The second-movement Andante ma Allegro was tranquil and languid, capturing the essence of an indolent summer’s day. The Rondo: Tempo di Menuetto alternated between a courtly ripieno and a virtuosic bassoon entrance; the whole gave the impression of a jig meets a minuet. Add in some haunting modulations for extra thrill. I overheard Andrew Schwartz talking to friends at intermission and it confirmed what I suspected: his cadenzas were improvised in performance. He drew out snippets of the works on the program, expanded on those themes, and perforce had to invent his way back to the concerto at hand. It was masterfully executed and a joyride for musicians (beaming throughout this bravura escapade) and audience alike.
Following intermission, Guy Fishman took the spotlight as soloist in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C. This work, composed in the first half of the 1760s, was only rediscovered in 1961, and rapidly entered the canon of recurring cello concerti (perhaps even now to the point of displacing the Haydn Cello Concerto in D). Playing on a 1704 Tecchler cello with Baroque setup, Fishman gave a plausible reconstruction of how the Esterházy family might have first heard this work. The eighteenth-century cello had neither the projection nor the rapidity of speech of modern synthetic-core strings; this was a different reading of the Haydn concerto than frequently heard. (Certainly it was vastly different than the last take on this work I reviewed for this journal — Maisky with the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra last spring.) Guy Fishman used a variety of bow techniques to obtain a wealth of colors and articulations. The cadenzas (Fishman’s own) were full of arpeggios and recalled violin cadenzas. Throughout he maintained rhythmic integrity (something not all performers do); the Adagio proceeded at a slower, statelier tempo, which I found very affecting and the finale, Allegro molto, flew by at an exciting clip. Given the technical capabilities of the historically set-up cello, this work became less about hearing each individual note with absolute clarity and more about the precise placement and shape of successive phrases. I heard a greater depth in this work than I have in quite some time.
The concert concluded with Kristen Watson, soprano, joining the ensemble for Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, K. 165. In four movements, this work is something like a vocal concerto. Watson gave an accomplished reading of this work. I appreciated more her lower and middle registers in this work, with restrained vibrato and clear amplitude of sound. After almost two hours of music, the concluding Alleluia brought to a close this delightful spectacle of period happiness.
Interested listeners may hear a WGBH promo of Arcadia’s recent concert here.