The ever-ebullient Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra brought J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos to Jordan Hall on Friday night, as violinist Aisslinn Nosky and harpsichordist Ian Watson took on leadership from within. The well-loved set also carries certain oddities. The instrumentation is different for each concerto, including some rather unconventional arrangements of soloists—a different set of musicians appears in each one—and little is known of the pieces’ original performance histories.
Before each piece, the instrumentalists tuned meticulously without rushing, settling into sonic consensus in Baroque tuning, setting the stage for a show of time-honored virtuosity. The group pulled off the marathon concert with aplomb, shining with delightful liveliness.
Concerto No. 1 in F Major began, spotlighting horn players Todd Williams and Elisabeth Axtell; Susanna Ogata on the violino piccolo; oboists Debra Nagy, Priscilla Herreid, and Gaia Saetermoe-Howard; and bassoonist Andrew Schwartz. Bach’s ornate counterpoint spun into the air with precision, and each separate voice found its own distinct lane in the stream of timbres – harpsichord, horns, winds, strings. The horns, in particular, played with poise and refinement through the first movement, with their triplet calls breaking rhythmically through the texture. Plaintive, soulful solos between the violin and oboe, with antiphonal choirs of strings and winds characterized the second movement. A cavorting third movement ensued, as Ogata played with verve and emphatic strength, without overpowering the activity of the other voices. The audience clapped, but in fact the first concerto is the only one with four movements! After accepting the applause graciously, the musicians began the final movement with a rich, full sound. In the three dances interspersed among repetitions of the recurring Menuetto, Bach spotlighted three subsets of the ensemble. In the first Trio, the wind section stepped genially and gracefully; the Polacca featured the strings rolling happily; and the horns and oboes carried out the second Trio with spirit and glory. A strong start to the night augured well for many more satisfying notes to come.
H+H continued with the fifth concerto, which, in addition to solo flute and violin, features an extensive solo part for the harpsichord. The first movement began with an amiable, warm atmosphere. Watson’s harpsichord sparkled in the air, surrounded by the swirling responses of flautist Andrea LeBlanc and Nosky. Spinning out from musical turn to turn, the harpsichord glided along in beautiful continuity; moments of darkness occurred, but the sun shone through. Gradually the orchestra receded as the music gave way to the famous harpsichord cadenza. Watson invited the audience along a wild journey through keys and moods, finding accuracy of articulation and laughing excitement. The first movement earned enthusiastic applause from a house floored by Watson’s brilliance. Three voices processed hand in hand in stately, songful fashion for the second movement. The third movement skipped along sunnily, with running scales and trills from the harpsichord. We heard a thriller full of cheer and mastery!
No. 3 in G Major concluded the first half, featuring three violinists, three violists, and three cellists. The musicians dispatched the first movement at a very brisk tempo, singing as a choir of strings, rich in bustling, ever-moving sound. The nine performers each shone in soloistic passages, either alone or in trios, backed by the bass and harpsichord. The quick tempo added great energy into the flow, almost frantic but clearly under control. The second movement of mysteriously shows one measure of two chords on the page. Interpreters execute this in different ways. H+H chose to proceed attacca from the first movement into an elegant, impassioned violin solo by Nosky, smoothly transitioning into the tutti of the two chords’ half cadence. The last movement dashed with another fast tempo, which the players accomplished brilliantly. Some of the notes lost definition in the whizzing rush, especially in the lower voices, but this did not diminish the sense of exhilaration. Like a bottle of pop, the soloists passed the main theme around, racing in 16th and even 32nd notes (watching bassist Heather Miller Lardin’s fingers fly up and down the fingerboard astonished!). No. 3 came with strong precision, extroverted character, and dramatic flair.
No. 2 in F Major began the second half, with Justin Bland on trumpet, Priscilla Herreid on recorder, Debra Nagy on oboe, and Nosky on violin. Bland tackled his famously difficult part with impressive clarity and control. The other soloists complemented the trumpet with matching clarion calls. The recorder gently floated above the multilayered instrumental textures. In the second movement, the oboe, violin, and recorders’ melodies sang out in counterpoint, each finding a place in Bach’s rich mosaic, the personalities swirling about like a florid arabesque. Finally, the decisive, high-spirited third movement proceeded, with Bland projecting the high trumpet figures with bright alacrity and stunning radiance.
Viola time!! Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major featured violists Jessica Troy and Jenny Stirling, backed by two violas da gamba, a cello, a violone, and a harpsichord. The two violists began the first movement in rolling canon and imitative counterpoint, following each other cheerfully. Rivers of notes and melodies ran about in a pleasantly inviting perpetual motion. The second movement came from the heart. Kind gazes, tender smiles upon beloved faces, but not without hints of bitterness or hardships. The dancelike final movement pranced about with swiftly flowing energy. All instruments showed great care and dexterity in this warm, friendly concerto for the alto, baritone, and bass voices of the string family.
No. 4 closed the concert, as Nagy and Herreid this time performed solo recorder parts, with Nosky on the solo violin. In the first movement, the double recorders added a speckled, celebratory brightness. Nosky displayed clearly articulated levity and transparency as fast runs blew through the air like sudden gusts of wind. A sacred atmosphere permeated the second movement as recorders soared above the texture. The full forces returned in a jovial third movement. Nosky zoomed through a driving solo; though the speedy tempo perhaps lost a few notes on the ears, the passage nonetheless had an energetic, rousing effect. With emphatic rhythmic unison, the musicians approached some breath-stopping rests in tight ensemble, reaching a smiling end together and ending the evening in a light, carefree manner.
At several points I noticed players smiling at each other, especially during particularly virtuosic passages. A delighted crowd matched the musicians’ expressions of genuine joy.
Julian Gau is a Boston-based conductor, currently pursuing a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.