With a penchant for historical accuracy, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society prides itself on breathing life into early repertoire. At Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center Friday night, they permitted themselves an indulgence in a Bach concert which, by all accounts, the composer never realized in his lifetime – performing the complete Brandenburg Concertos. However, given the musical revelations it provided, in addition to its sheer energy level, one would forgive this HIP inaccuracy. While Bach himself never heard all six performed together (or at all), if he happened to have wandered in, he would have approved, and maybe joined in.
H + H’s concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and its harpsichordist Ian Watson co-led the “conductorless” group. The chosen order achieved a logical concert flow which would not have been possible if done chronologically; #1 and #2 opened each half, #3 and #4 closed, and #5 and #6 came in the middle.
The first concerto for horns, oboes, and violin piccolo (pitched higher than the traditional instrument) is awkward in its construction, leading to voicing and balance issues, treacherous entrances for the winds, plus the intonation issues arising from the diverse mix of instruments. The ensemble was not immune to these challenges, although the decision to put the soloists on stage right and the ripieno ensemble on stage left greatly helped the balance throughout the whole evening. Still, intonation was an issue, as well as a few faulty entrances in the horns. The decision to vary the instrumentation on the final menuetto helped keep the ritornello from sounding too long in the tooth.
In Concerto No. 5, the liquid lines of flutist Emi Ferguson joined the strings; she often appeared to float aloft on the very melodies she was creating. Nosky joined the solo ranks too, but the fifth Brandenburg will always belong to the harpsichord. Watson wove the extended solo with a mirthful shine; the audience’s uncontainable adulation erupted the moment the ensemble rejoined, giving the whole movement the feel of a jazz chart where soloists are acknowledged while the piece plays on – a refreshingly unbridled moment in the concert hall.
The first half ended with no. 3, the concerto for a trio of trios ― 3 each of violins, violas and cellos. It rose to the energetic peak of the evening. At times perhaps a bit too caffeinated, like a steeplechase in fast forward, it never flagged in its drive nor faltered in its accuracy. Nosky’s improvised a solo of perfect length and style over the two-chord-long second movement, and the finale drove off to the races again.
The Second Brandenburg contains one of the most challenging trumpet solos in the repertoire, but John Thiessen rose to the occasion, playing with good tone and balance across the wide range and navigating the passagework gracefully. From time to time notes failed to speak, including a few of the (many) high F’s, but one could also notice the exceptional balance among the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin. Skeptical that Priscilla Herreid’s recorder would even be audible, I was amazed that all the period instruments blended nicely. The second movement’s spiraling harmonies unfolded in enthralling fashion, and the final Allegro assai hit new energetic peaks without losing the balance.
The only concerto in B-flat, and the only one without violins, no. 6 followed with Sarah Darling and Jenny Stirling’s take on the duetted lines more akin to a sister-act competition than a one-violist-with-two-instruments synthesis. This must have been a deliberate choice, but musical opportunities can also arise from the latter approach. The sixth is also the only concerto with viola da gambas, but (possibly as an artistic statement by the composer) they are mainly relegated to supporting the newer violas, making their presence more visible than audible.
The concert closed with the effervescent fourth concerto, with the recorder parts being covered by Herreid and Debra Nagy, who played oboe in the second. In this second movement Nagy offered evocative and finely shaped phrases. Aisslinn Nosky joined the flutes for the finger-flying violin part with an energy level akin to #3 but without the breathless sense of danger; it was just a romp till the end of the concerto and the show.
Watching the musicians of H+H present these works with such grace, energy, virtuosity, and joie de vivre tremendously added to the experience ― maybe even part of the historical accuracy. One could let one’s eyes and ears wander amid the ensemble, taking in each performer’s personality. Such individual personalities give much of baroque and early music its character.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.