in: Reviews

April 11, 2015

Grand Deconstruction


Grand Harmonie poses (file photo)

Grand Harmonie poses (file photo)

Grand Harmonie, the period-instrument ensemble specializing in Classical and early-Romantic music for woodwinds and strings, concluded its 2014–15 season Friday night at the Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall with “grand harmonie: deconstruction” Comprising two major works by Mozart and an early composition by Mendelssohn, it repeats Saturday night in New York.

In a rarity for the group, whose founding oboist was unable to play on this program, none of the selections included the double-reed instrument which is nearly ubiquitous in the 18th– and 19th-century orchestral repertory. Instead, listeners were given a rare opportunity to hear the early version of Mozart’s Serenade for Winds K. 375 together with his Symphony in E-flat Major K. 543 (no. 39 in the traditional listing), both scored without oboes. Also on the program was Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 12 in G Minor for strings. Paired with the wind serenade on the first half, the latter made for a “deconstruction” of the ensemble, which was reconstituted as a full orchestra on the second half. There Adam Kerry Boyles joined the group as conductor.

The serenade, composed in fall 1781 during Mozart’s first year in Vienna, is one of the composer’s three major works for the Austrian harmonie ensembles or wind bands from which Grand Harmonie takes its name. Originally for pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns, by the following spring it had gained two oboes, whose parts Mozart created by sometimes doubling, sometimes re-assigning material originally given to the horns and clarinets. Yet the early version heard Friday night is by no means austere or lacking in color, at least as played by Grand Harmonie.

This music, perhaps more than any other from the period, benefits from the rich, dark foundational sound of the “natural” horns and “classical” bassoons, which blend splendidly with one another. To this the slightly woody or pungent period clarinets add a certain bite, at least when played with the clear articulation favored by players Thomas Carroll and Elise Bonhivert. Performing with near-perfect intonation and unanimity of phrasing, this is clearly an ensemble that has labored hard to achieve a distinctive sound and musical character. It would be wonderful to hear them explore more of the “harmony” repertory, with or without oboes—perhaps including non-Viennese compositions as well, such as the little-known woodwind marches and sonatas of C. P. E. Bach.

The Mozart serenades, however, are surely the pinnacle of this repertory, and the sextet version of K. 375 also tests each of the players, especially the first clarinet, who usually plays the leading line. In fact every part has passages as demanding as what one might encounter in a concerto. Carroll was impressive in his solo licks throughout, but so too was second hornist Yoni Kahn in the central Adagio, when the main theme is restated in a variation that includes wide-ranging passagework for the lower parts. (It is not unusual for the second horn, which benefits from a distinctive style of writing in Viennese Classical music, to have particularly virtuosic passagework.) The superb ensemble playing and the expressive solos of the two bassoons, Nate Helgeson and Allen Hamrick deserve mention, although I am obliged to disclose that both are former students of mine (and one of the string players is in a class that I am now teaching).

One can read that Classical serenades are light, but this one, although slighter than Mozart’s later Grand Partita (Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments), is no little nightmusic. The opening Allegro and the Adagio have substantial chromatic passages which can be tricky to negotiate on historical woodwinds; these were executed expressively, with no evident difficulty. Even the rondo finale, which starts off sounding like one of Haydn’s more comic efforts, has a little fugato in C minor at its center, which was played with panache. My only regret about this performance was that it omitted the second of the five movements. Perhaps it seemed superfluous to play two minuets, each with its own trio. But I had been looking forward to hearing the solo for the two horns in the first trio, whose dark C-minor coloration complements that of the second trio in A-flat major.

Mozart’s symphony, followed the intermission. Here the 26 players plus conductor rather filled the small Pickman stage. The modern practice of adding conductors to period-instrument ensembles, often viewed as a necessary concession to present-day performing conditions, seems to me rather an avoidance of a challenge that has been successfully met by other ensembles, “modern” as well as “period.” This performance did not lack for the type of spontaneity that characterized actual 18th-century playing, as when the woodwinds added little embellishments to their solos in the third movement. And I might have been the only one who missed the sound of a fortepiano or harpsichord doubling the cellos and basses in their numerous solo entries in the first movement. Yet the Mendelssohn sinfonia came off perfectly well without a conductor, and I would love to see Grand Harmonie emulate historical practices, which Christopher Hogwood brought to this repertory with great success more than 30 years ago by directing symphonies such as this from the fortepiano.

Even with a conventional conductor, this was an engaging and energetic performance of one of Mozart’s most challenging orchestral works. The E-flat symphony is the least-often played of Mozart’s great, last three. Less impassioned than the G-minor and less grand than the “Jupiter,” it nevertheless is the most Beethovenian of the three, pointing forward to the first efforts of Mozart’s younger contemporary and (briefly) pupil. Of course it was actually Beethoven whose early style echoed Mozart’s, as conductor Boyles suggested in a brief lecture-demonstration preceding the performance. Here he had the orchestra demonstrate a few “progressive” moments, such as a sharp dissonance in the slow introduction that has an echo in Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. He might also have mentioned that Mozart’s symphony plays with motives and remote modulations in ways that must have given suggestions to Beethoven. One senses as well, especially in the last two movements, a brusque humor that today is associated with the later composer.

Possibly it was the small size of the stage or the unfavorable acoustic of the hall that made this performance less than entirely successful. It was marked by fine lyrical playing from the woodwinds, especially flutist Sarah Paysnick and first horn Yoni Kahn Yet the eight violins were often overpowered by the brass and timpani, whose sound seemed to be amplified by their placement at the back wall. The exposed position of the violins at the front of the stage, moreover, tended to underline the occasional imprecisions of pitch and rhythm that marred an otherwise accurate performance.

The strings were heard to far better advantage in the Mendelssohn, his second-to-last of 13 sinfonias for string orchestra written as a teenager, prior to his five more familiar symphonies for full orchestra. Like most of his other sinfonias it was probably modeled to some degree on similarly scored compositions by the oldest son of Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann, which Mendelssohn would have found in the music collection of his great-aunt Sara Levy. The influence of the elder Bach is equally evident in two fugues, especially one in the final movement. There, however, Mendelssohn displays his youthful inventiveness by writing not the first but the second theme as a fugue—a unique merging of Baroque counterpoint with Classical sonata form (when this theme comes back in the recapitulation, it becomes a double fugue). Other passages in the same movement combine echoes of the third Brandenburg Concerto, another all-string piece, with bits of Mozart, including the final chords from the latter’s great symphony in the same key (no. 40).

Principal first violinist Emily Dahl led the 16 players in a polished reading of this fascinating but rarely heard and perhaps slightly récherché piece, which is both a brilliant composition exercise and an entirely successful musical outpouring. Offering hints of the types of melody and chromatic harmony that would characterize the “mature” Mendelssohn of just a few years later, the latter aspects of the sinfonia might have been brought out in a performance that took a more Romantic approach to the neo-Baroque counterpoint. The frequent running notes in the quick movements might have benefited from a more legato, less articulated approach, and there might also have been more dynamic shaping. This is so despite the fact that Mendelssohn failed to notate most of the crescendos and diminuendos that were probably as much a part of playing Bach as of more recent repertoire in 1823, when this piece was written.

Both “deconstructions”—the Mozart serenade for winds and the Mendelssohn sinfonia for strings—are genres that need to be heard more often; Grand Harmonie has consistently explored repertories that are worth hearing but which are neglected by other performing organizations. It has done so in programs that are imaginatively constructed and compellingly played. Music-making of this quality and creativity does not easily earn large-scale corporate backing, but it deserves encouragement and support from anybody who cares about music that lies off the well-trodden paths followed by others.

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

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