Ongoing traditions such as Boston Baroque’s New Year’s Day concert play a major role in helping us recover a sense of normalcy after nearly three years of COVID angst. On Sunday at Sanders Theater, Music Director Martin Pearlman and his ensemble provided their trademark selection of repertoire appealing to both heart and brain: instrumental music by late Baroque masters Bach and Telemann; solo recorder music from two Dutch composers of the early Baroque, van Eyck and van Noort; and a Vivaldi motet for solo soprano and instruments.
J.S. Bach’s sixth Brandenburg Concerto is the only one of the six to dispense with violins, giving the violas top billing. While the work is not unique in this respect, its brethren are few and little known. On a celebratory occasion such as New Year’s Day one might have expected the concert to begin with a showy piece for the full ensemble with, of course, full first and second violin sections, but to his credit, Pearlman opted for a road less traveled, performing No. 6 with only seven players: two violas, two violas da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord, with the director conducting from the keyboard. The interplay between the two violas emerged with particular clarity as did their duets with the violas da gamba and the cello. Despite the use of such a small chamber ensemble, the concerto’s dark richness came out consistently, helped no doubt by the warm acoustics of Sanders Theater. In the final movement I especially enjoyed the jolly conversation between the solo violas, played by Jason Fisher and Sarah Darling (who normally is the orchestra’s principal second violin) as well as the main theme’s many syncopations which effectively offset the joyful triple rhythm.
The second selection, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, came somewhat closer to the expected showy piece, using the full orchestra. Though the suite did offer many opportunities for the solo flutist Joseph Monticello (Boston Baroque’s principal) to shine, BB did not play it as a quasi-concerto as many ensembles did in the days before historically informed performance practice took hold. In the outer sections of the tripartite Ouverture Monticello doubled the violins, blending so smoothly with them that the flute seemed simply to enrich the string sound rather than being a separate entity. In the fugal central section he alternated seamlessly between continued doubling and striking off on an independent solo line. The succession of dance movements that followed were stylish and elegant while individual in character. The courtly Rondeau featured nicely shaped phrases and airy articulation by all the players. The tempo of the Sarabande moved somewhat more briskly than is typical of this dance, perhaps to allow the canon between the top voice (flute and first violins) and the bass (cello and harpsichord) to be heard more readily. Flutist and orchestra gave a moving account of this beautiful movement. The Bourrées I and II (with da capo) provided the first opportunity for some technical display, and their propulsive rhythm beguiled. The Polonaise puts more of a spotlight on the flute by its doubling the violins an octave higher; Monticello’s playing remained unassuming but always attractive. The graceful Menuet conjured visions of skilled 18th-century dancers at a royal ball, with the handsome articulation lending air and light to the texture. The final movement is surely the most brilliant of any of the orchestral suites, and inevitably there are flutists who play it hellbent for leather, treating it as pure technical display. Fortunately, the artist on this occasion observed the meaning of Badinerie (French for playful banter): his rendering was technically scintillating but also had the element of playfulness and fun, embodied in Monticello’s creative and brilliant ornamentation.
Following the most familiar work on the program were the two least familiar (at least to non-recorder players): unaccompanied recorder pieces imitating nightingales by the Dutch composers Jacob van Eyck (1590-1657) and Jacob van Noort (1619-1675). The performer was Aldo Abreu, a popular guest artist on a number of BB New Year’s Day concerts. He gave a spirited account of van Eyck’s Engels Nachtegaeltje (The Little English Nightingale) on a soprano recorder, a charming tune that increased in technical challenges while also becoming more imitative of birdsong (most prominently a cuckoo call). I was struck by Abreu’s “half trilling” effect, produced apparently by rapidly quasi-covering and uncovering one of the instrument’s holes. For van Noort’s Den Nachtegael (The Nightingale), the performer switched to the smallest recorder I have ever seen. Known as the garklein or sopranissimo, it sounds a full octave above the soprano (two octaves above the written note), in fact approximating the range of birds singing. Van Noort’s work makes still sterner demands on the player’s virtuosity, and Abreu’s wizardry making music on this tiny instrument held us spellbound.
The next piece, utilizing the gifts of both soloists, was Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in E Minor for recorder and flute. Monticello played a different Baroque flute than the one he used in the Bach while Abreu switched to an alto recorder. Interestingly, when the two instruments played separately, one could hear their distinct timbres readily enough, but when they played together, their tone seemed very nearly to match. The second Largo was striking for its pizzicato accompaniment as well as the artists’ expressive and creative embellishments. Telemann enjoyed going out in the Polish countryside to hear folk fiddlers and bagpipers jamming, and one could hear this in the fourth and final movement (Presto) in the frequent bass drone under the energetic theme in the upper strings. The soloists engaged in friendly competition, reveling in the virtuosic writing, but also collaborated so smoothly that it was often difficult to discern who was playing what. BB has performed this work a number of times going back decades, and judging from this audience’s highly enthusiastic response, it will always be welcome when performed so masterfully.
The BB New Year’s Day concert would not be complete without vocal music; the program concluded with Vivaldi’s motet for soprano and orchestra O qui coeli terraeque serenitas (“O Thou, serenity of heaven and earth”) featuring soprano Amanda Forsythe. Pearlman remarked that we do not know for whom the composer wrote this vibrant and demanding work, but, given its demands, it was likely not for one of the girls at the Ospedale della Pietà orphanage where Vivaldi taught music for many years. The four-part motet (Aria I, Recitative, Aria II Aria III) sets a prayer—crystallized in the recitative’s opening lines: “Let the world become repulsive to us as we look toward heaven”—and concludes with a pyrotechnical Alleluia. The first aria employed a triple meter, sighing figures, and expressive appoggiaturas to beseech God to hear the prayer that follows. Forsythe sang with pious expressivity and stylish ornamentation in the da capo. Her understated delivery of the recitative, however, might have benefited from more drama to better reflect the strong contrasts of the text, e.g., the “repulsive” world and “all things vile” versus the “highest good”. The second aria featured a descending bass, a device common to many a Baroque lament (Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” and Bach’s “Crucifixus” from the B Minor Mass being two notable examples), in setting a poetic text (“The rose that dies, the wave that breaks teach us the transience of earthly joys”). The soloist created a genuinely poignant mood here with more exemplary da capo ornamentation and moving melismata on “fugaces” (“fleeting”) and “fallaces” (“deceptive”). The final aria is an early example of the single word “Alleluia” being set to brilliant and exuberant music; other notable examples include those of Bach (Cantata 51), Mozart (Exsultate jubilate), and the late Ned Rorem. Vivaldi’s coloratura figurations sometimes seemed more instrumentally conceived, but Forsythe’s impressive technique encompassed them easily and naturally in a joyous and exciting performance. Despite a tenacious pandemic, the illustrious tradition of Boston Baroque’s New Year’s performances endures. Received with thanks