The Brandenburg Concertos
Kenneth Cooper, Harpsichord
Presented by The Colburn School Chamber Music Society
Reviewed by Steven Woodruff
The Colburn School presented its third concert on the current Chamber Music Society series this past Sunday with an inventive and exuberant performance of the Brandenburg Concertos. Count yourself among the humbugged if you missed it. The concert was the culmination of a week of rehearsals under the amiable and generous leadership of Kenneth Cooper who has decades invested in bringing the concertos to the concert hall, notably as director of his own Berkshire Bach Ensemble which performs them annually. What it was not: a period reenactment of antique music preciously played. What it was: a joyful collaboration of conservatory students (mostly) and Cooper finding a common ground in interpreting great music. I asked him what his goal was for the concertos with this group of players. His ready answer was that first and foremost, he wanted to “make gorgeous music”, but also to find a way of playing them without fear and without the limiting confines of a methodology. Cooper is a bit of an agent provocateur when it comes to this music. He notes that these concertos are a kind of 20th century music since current awareness of them really only begins with the advent of early versions on LP. You have to like that kind of thinking and sense that it will lead you eventually to an unexpected wonderland or two.
The Brandenburg Concertos are the iconic chamber pieces of the German Baroque. They are the portal through which Bach walked after Vivaldi and his concept of concertos for diverse instruments lit up European capitals like a Christmas tree. In them are the long and short of everything: music borrowed and borrowed again, music where even the essential violin is banished and then the orchestra too, music from outdoors and in, intimate conversations and noisy bands, vast movements and movements that are hardly there at all and one virtuoso part for trumpet which terrifies the player and sometimes the listener. I could go on but I won’t. Let’s just say that that original gift, foolishly unopened by the dusty and perhaps uncharitable Margrave of Brandenburg, made the court at Cöthen sound for a time like the center of a pretty swell musical universe.
There is wisdom in playing these pieces in numerical order and while you might want to reorganize them for this purpose or that, I believe in Cooper’s admonition that playing them in order gives you the big things first, concluding with the paring down that creates such a brilliant finish. The 5th Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord is of course spectacular and full of virtuosity at the keyboard and notable for how often musicians are not playing, including the soloists. The question is, can you really just stop there. I think not. The 6th Concerto gives us a very necessary dénouement as well as a final homage to Vivaldi in the shivering figures of the ultimate movement. Finally there is the long reprise in the last movement that makes you feel that Bach himself was reluctant to let go of his spirited creation. Here is how all that played out in the concert. The additions and interpolations to the standard form of these concertos were supplied expressly for this concert by Kenneth Cooper.
In the opening Concerto in F Major, Caitlin Kelly did a masterful job centering her solo violin part against the large orchestra. Horn players Emily Nagel and Johanna Yarbrough were terrific and played with flare that was both boisterous and, when needed, subdued. You could have imagined this one in the open air with some of the spirit of say, Handel’s Water Music. The improvising began early on with Cooper filling some of the spaces with his textural flourishes on the harpsichord. In the Adagio the ending especially was managed with finesse as were the complexities of the Menuet, Trios and Polacca. Alex Zdanis played the bassoon obbligato section with carefully shaped phrases and clear articulations. The horns again were brilliant in their heraldic section in Trio II . Cooper had originally asked for some free improvising from the orchestra in the third movement Allegro which happened with some unusual effects in rehearsal but less so in the performance.
Concerto No.2 in F Major and Concerto No 3 in G Major both had exceptional moments. I liked the conversational rapport among the soloists ( Melody Lee, Gina Luciani and Jamie Roberts playing violin, flute and oboe) and the well balanced playing by David Etterbeek on trumpet. Striking moments came in the endlessly descending bass line of the first Allegro in the G Major Concerto. The dynamics here were particularly effective. Cooper replaced the two chords of the second movement with a full scale movement from the F minor Harpsichord Concerto No. 5, another of Bach’s reworked, long, ornamented melodies. Taking turns in bringing the solo line to life were the cellos, violas and violins in triplets, who nimbly handed off phrases in a kind of musical round table. Two horns were also reintroduced here to good effect. They added a glow to the outer movements that, in this arrangement, felt entirely in keeping with the intent of the concerto.
Concerto No. 4 in G Major was unique for the inclusion of an off stage wind trio–oboe, english horn and bassoon–in the Andante. They shared the dialogue between the soloists and the orchestra. Cooper had them placed (to good effect) at the back of the hall. Clare Brazeau, John Winstead and Andrew Brady were the wind soloists and played with an exceptional blended sound. Flute soloists, Francesco Camuglia and Mark Teplitsky were also excellent and unified in their playing. Playing with fervor and great expression was Zlata Grekov in the solo violin part. Her virtuoso playing in the both the outer movements was exceptional. She was a powerful force with a very sweet sound throughout the concerto. Also excellent were cellos and bass, especially in the Andante where the ensemble playing was striking.
Concerto No. 5 in D Major lifts the harpsichord out of its role in the continuo and Cooper seized on that fact to create an oceangoing statement with his playing. He manages to coax an extraordinary amount of sound from the instrument. His playing in the cadenza of the first movement Allegro was rich, full of exciting textural changes, and resetting of tempos as it moved from section to section. Leaving behind the orchestra and soloists, it was music that left you with the impression of looking through a keyhole into a vast adjoining room. Bach has infused this concerto with a constant stream of statement and comment. Violinist Danielle Belen and flutist Rose Lombardo brought all of that to life with beautifully shaped personal playing that expresses what Cooper calls the shift of focus to the “quieter, internal elements“ in the last three concertos. The Affettuoso with its core of two soloists and continuo reflects where the music is eventually headed. I liked especially the highly modulated playing from Lombardo in the solo flute. She impressed me early on in rehearsals with her keen listening and expressive playing. The concerto ends with the delightful Allegro (gigue) in which Bach has the audacity to have the flute lay out in the final tutti, a sign perhaps that the winds who have performed nobly up to now will no longer be needed. Faculty violist Paul Coletti joined the band of violists in the final concerto in Bb Major. His playing has an easygoing confidence and calm that was ably communicated in all of the movements. The three other violists were Jeremy Berry, Sara Harball and Arianna Smith. I liked the Adagio which expands the domain of the intimate conversation to five. These are the “mellower folks” who have stayed after dinner for the “real music“. Bassist Ben Hanlon and cellist Benjamin Lash, who did finally become the vocalist in elaborating the solo cello line as Cooper had requested, were both terrific. The dark, sonorous voices concluded with a final Allegro that was full of stately rhythm and vivaciousness. The full throttle applause from the packed hall said what needed to be said.
In the last conversation I had with Cooper he said to me (and this is a loose paraphrase): “I don’t really see why there are music critics anyway”. I agree with him or at least see his point. Each concert will have its successes and anomalies and this we accept. That any performance should measure up against a fixed idea of how it should go is a less useful standard. Fortunately, I think of myself not as a critic but a storyteller and a writer. I think that’s different. I try to establish the main points and then be inquisitive about what I’ve heard. In the current instance it turned out to be a very easy and rewarding thing to do.
Let me finish by saying that spending the week listening to these concertos has been a great experience. Kenneth Cooper, as I’ve said, is a genial band leader. You hear him say “that was terrific” a lot, or “I shouldn’t be telling you how good that sounds”, or “the tempo is entirely up to you”. Hats off to the conservatory students who were willing to gamble along with him. In the end, that was the real story but the music was gorgeous indeed.
Los Angeles, California
December 12, 2010