Faithful to its traditions, Boston Baroque and music director Martin Pearlman celebrated the arrival of 2018 in identical concerts at Sanders on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day featuring two long beloved standards as well as an enjoyable revelation of a virtually unknown small masterpiece. On New Year’s Day Martin Pearlman directed and elucidated admirably and soprano Mary Wilson exulted.
The afternoon began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 which, as Pearlman noted, broke new ground as one of the earliest pieces to use horns as part of an orchestra instead of merely an outdoor instrument for hunts. Todd Williams and Robert Marlatt, played the valveless period instruments standing up. This possibly led to their being often slightly more prominent than the norm, yet balances were consistently well-judged, and in fact, the spotlighting of horns heightened the many rhythmic contrasts when they had triplet figures against the main ensemble’s duples. The second movement was notable for the plangent solos of concertmaster Christina Day Martinson and principal oboe Gonzalo X. Ruiz as well as Bach’s many dissonances that ached expressively before resolving. The rollicking third movement delighted with its alternations of tutti and “chamber ensemble” as well as horn-playing that was deft, if not immaculate in the high range. Though with slightly understated dynamics, the movement’s energy never flagged except intentionally in the deliciously odd little passage where Bach has things grind to a near-standstill momentarily before launching back into the main Allegro. The final movement, perhaps a Baroque precursor to the Classical rondo form, has one main theme (a menuetto) which recurs throughout, interspersed with different episodes, i.e., trios and a polonaise. The courtly dance had a gentle, graceful swing, and the interludes provided handsome contrasts, both contemplative and extroverted.
The 15-minute Gloria for solo soprano, strings, and continuo of George Frideric Handel was considered lost until its rediscovery at the Royal Academy of Music’s library in 2001. (Boston Baroque gave one of the first American performances). In this early work of the composer, the Italian influence remained strong. Coloratura soprano Mary Wilson gave an exemplary, apparently effortless account, mixing virtuosity, touching introspection, and outright beauty. Her breath control and thoughtfully varied dynamics gave the real vitality to innumerable melismas (some very long indeed) with which the composer highlighted key words in the text.
Considered unusual at the time of its premiere 300 years ago, for its use of horns in a concert, Handel’s Water Music Suite in F Major is now one of his greatest hits. The setting itself was more than a little unusual: barges on the River Thames, one for performers and another for King George I and other royals. Pearlman and his players gave the Overture splendor and pomp befitting a monarch, and this listener relished the crisp precision of the many “anacrusis groups” of notes, executed quite rapidly in double-dotted rhythm but always with unanimity of ensemble. A highlight of the animated fugal section was the antiphonal dialogue between the first and second violin principals (Martinson and Sarah Darling). In the second movement the oboes contributed a sweetly ornamented cantilena over a largely detached string accompaniment. Handel has the horns make their first appearance in the third movement (the element of surprise?), Williams and Marlatt showing off their limber lips in trills and often florid writing. The carefully worked-out dynamics and intelligently phrased playing ensured that this very familiar movement never verged on the routine. Handel’s fourth movement’s Presto marking is not, of course, comparable to, say, a Franz Liszt presto, but Boston Baroque’s playing had no shortage of brio. The horns were equally convincing here as simply the brass component of the ensemble more than soloists though an inspired Handel gives them the last phrase to themselves. Another favorite movement of this suite is the fifth, Air, for its sweet tune in gentle, single-dotted rhythm, heard first in the violins and subsequently in the oboes. Again, the horns lent their warm, mellow color in a mostly supporting role.
If Handel’s sixth movement Minuet is a bit more arch than Bach’s menuetto heard earlier, it was likely because the composer’s patron, George I, likely never strayed far from his mind. The violas received a seldom-granted melodic solo in the minor-mode trio and made the most of it with smooth, handsome tone. Detached, sotto voce strings then reeds percolating with quiet energy made the Bourée subtly stimulating. The Hornpipe had the horns again displaying impressive agility, particularly in added ornamentation for repeated passages. In the final movement, the full ensemble introduced the famous Alla Hornpipe theme, then taken up by the solo horns (with further elegant ornaments added). It brought the official program to a resounding conclusion, perhaps, as Pearlman hoped, making us momentarily forget the arctic conditions outside.
At the Boston Baroque New Year’s Day concert in 2012, Mary Wilson, Martin Pearlman, and the ensemble favored the audience with a most unusual encore: Leonard Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, almost certainly its first performance using period instruments. In this centennial year of Bernstein’s birth, this highly showy coloratura aria constituted a most natural choice for an early music ensemble to revisit. As before, the singer sailed through all the considerable technical challenges with brilliance to spare, but just as importantly, she noticeably had fun. Bernstein designed the aria to be milked, and Wilson never held back. She could change moods on a dime, and did so most entertainingly. The audience responded heartily on their feet.