Ringing in the new year with old music is a cherished tradition that Boston Baroque and its music director Martin Pearlman began 30 years ago, when the organization was called Banchetto Musicale. This year’s well-chosen New Year’s Day program at Harvard’s Sanders Theater disclosed a pair of concertos and two suites. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor was less familiar but no less worthy than the well-loved other works: Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor (“Christmas Concerto”), Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, and George Frideric Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. These last perhaps served as the musical equivalent of comfort food, but the vital and emotionally engaged performances cast aside any doubts.
Even on a festive day, the performers’ seriousness of purpose appeared evident from the outset, as the string players took the time necessary for meticulous tuning before Pearlman’s concise, informative, and interesting remarks.
The “Christmas Concerto’s” dramatic opening chords coming before the Allegro section’s chains of suspensions, were enhanced by small dynamic rises and falls. Clipped articulation lent admirable clarity in the generous ambience of Sanders. The ornamentation by the solo violinists Christina Day Martinson and Sarah Darling, and cellist Jennifer Morsches) came across as discreet but telling. The penultimate movement in which plainly declarative statements alternated with more ornate passages constituted yet another highlight. This ultimately led without pause into the final Pastorale whose illustration of the shepherds who see the star over Bethlehem, gives the concerto its Christmas association. (Amazingly, this is the one movement Corelli marked as optional in the score!) Using a walking tempo and moderate legato, the musicians subtly keep drowsiness at bay, though Corelli’s halting, whispered final chords suggest some sleepy eyes abided in the field.
J.S. Bach’s third orchestral suite may owe its popularity in part to the famous second movement Air, but the privilege of hearing the entire suite gave ample proof, if any were needed, that all its movements are equally inspired. The one oddity: after Pearlman emphasized in his comments the traditional double-dotted rhythms of the opening French overture, the actual execution was rather more relaxed than expected. This minor quibble aside, the playing was handsome as the newly added contingent of wind instruments gave effective punctuation to the smooth legato strings in the outer sections, while the inner fast section was exciting, vigorous as well as precise. As a boy, I often heard the beloved “Air on the G String” (a 19th-century misnomer) played at a Romantic adagio by massed modern strings; so how refreshing it was to hear it at andantino with the leaner sound of period instruments. What had once been reverential and perhaps sanctimonious became on Sunday a humane and humble profoundly comforting expression of the soul. The Gavotte successfully balanced an energetic bounce with courtliness while the Bourrée proved delightfully nimble. The final jig sounded perhaps more restrained than rollicking but caused toes to tap nonetheless. Near the end, a significant pull-back of dynamics set up a stirring crescendo.
Following intermission, BB concertmaster Christina Day Martinson took the solo part in Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto (BWV 1041) with virtuosity and verve. Perhaps her rising from the prinicpal’s chair caused her to take a first among equals approach; particularly in the first movement the combination of her intimate tone and Bach’s frequently close integration of the solo line with the ensemble occasionally made it a challenge for the ear to separate out the solo violin line. The slow movement was lyrical and expressive as the orchestra’s non-legato chords provided a counterpoint to Martinson’s lovely bel canto. The most overtly showy solo violin moment came in the concluding jig, but again the concertmaster declined to take an ego trip, though her accomplished efforts were certainly not self-effacing either. The ever-attentive accompanying of Pearlman and his ensemble allowed the solos to emerge without the necessity of pushy projecting.
With its pyrotechnical theme, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks served as an ideal closer for a New Year’s Day concert. Pearlman noted that the composer was probably the only musician in England who could argue with the king (George II) and indeed did so regarding the work’s instrumentation. The king desired only wind instruments and drums while Handel envisioned string instruments in addition. His Majesty prevailed but only for the premiere; subsequent concert performances and the published score included the other instruments. As with the Bach suite, this work opens with a French overture. This time the double-dotting was as sharp as one could wish, creating an effect of regal pomp. The three horns, played with bells pointing upward, added richness to the sound, especially in the phrases for winds alone. The agile execution in the Bourée, particularly from the winds, impressed, and the whole dance crackled with rhythmic energy. This suite was commissioned for the signing of an Austrian peace accord in 1748, and La Paix (The Peace) provided a more sustained and gentle moment in the midst of grand processions and celebrations. However, rejoicing remained the main order of the day, and La Réjouissance and the concluding minuet did so very effectively. As we enter a year when nothing is certain but uncertainty, the music of Boston Baroque and Martin Pearlman may well have accomplished the difficult task of generating optimism. They are to be commended as well for extending this gift (gratis) to another audience on Monday at Dorchester’s Strand Theater.