It has been 300 years precisely since the day that Johann Sebastian Bach sat down at a table in the little German principality of Cöthen to compose a letter to a Berlin potentate to accompany a package containing what he called “six concertos with several instruments.”
Those works, sent off to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in March of 1721, have become known as the Brandenburg Concertos, and a performance of these most popular of Bach’s compositions is always an event, particularly if all six are played on one program.
At the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach on Wednesday night, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave these seminal pieces a sometimes rough-and-ready, sometimes brilliant performance, largely attributable to the unusual circumstances they encountered Wednesday night.
A sprinkler in the Gubelmann Auditorium, where the concert was supposed to have been performed, came on just after rehearsal around 5 p.m. Wednesday, soaking sheet music, the stage, and several rows of the auditorium, and almost canceling the concert. But never-say-die heads prevailed, and the concert was relocated to Johnson Hall in the Four Arts’s Dixon Education Building, not far from the Gubelmann.
Because of the relocation, particularly of the harpsichord, which needed to be re-tuned, the concert got underway about half an hour late, at around 8 p.m., which made some of the masked capacity crowd restless. The pianist Wu Han, co-director of the Chamber Music Society and an artistic adviser to the Four Arts, told the audience about the ordeal that the musicians had endured, and urged them to be patient while everyone got relocated and the concert could get underway.
The audience also had to deal with a reminder from a Four Arts official about cellphones – the performance of the Third Concerto that night was being filmed by PBS, whose camera crew could be seen throughout the night – and about masks, which were handed to the few people there who did not have them.
All of that asked a lot of the audience and the performers, and a sense of weariness had started to settle in, but the Lincoln Center players did their best to sweep that all away as they opened the first half of the program with an air-clearing, vigorous Concerto No. 1. It soon was evident that Johnson Hall’s extremely dry acoustic would be no help to the musicians, and that the harpsichord, placed at the back of the stage, would be almost impossible to hear.
But it also was evident that the stage held expert performers who were adept at these enormously challenging scores, and they were going to bring them off despite all the dislocation. Violinist Daniel Phillips, playing the solo part originally given to the now-obsolete violino piccolo, brought bravura and an almost improvisatory feel to his first solo entrance, which set the tone for the loose feel of the performance as the musicians worked to pull things together in a new venue.
The concerto, which served double duty in the Bach catalog for a secular cantata devoted to hunting, has two prominent, treacherous horn parts that were less than ideally played at the start. The fourth movement, a mini-suite of dances, found David Byrd-Marrow and Stewart Rose in better form, with bassoonist Marc Goldberg adding rapid scales in the second Trio and oboists Stephen Taylor, James Austin Smith and Randall Ellis playing an elaborated version of their accompaniment in that same movement.
It was a long remove from the robustness the piece can have in a room with good reverb, but there was something about its overabundance of nervous energy that made it well-suited for the disruptions of the night.
The Third Concerto, which followed, is perhaps the best-known of the set, and there was a strong sense of recognition from members of the audience as its familiar melody got underway, led by violinist Sean Lee. Here, too, though, there were some less than perfectly placed accents in the unison passages, leading to a slightly bumpy ride here and there.
The second and final movement (there was a slight elaboration from harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss of the two-chord cadence in the middle) has become a speed test over the last couple decades as the level of instrumental skill achieved by today’s players has grown. This reading was no exception, and the music barreled ahead at a ferociously fast pace from its opening to its end.
It was exciting, but it seems to me the music would be just as good if it were a little bit slower. It doesn’t have to set a land speed record.
The Fifth Concerto featured harpsichordist Weiss, who as far as I could tell played very well, but from my seat toward the back he was very difficult to hear, which made the measures before the harpsichord takes its solo cadenza in the first movement odd: You could hear the very quiet accompaniment figures played by violinist Lee and flutist Ransom Wilson, but barely hear who they were hushing for.
The second movement, with just Lee, Wilson, Weiss and the steady continuo of cellist Timothy Eddy and bassist Joseph Conyers, was lovely, with the trio of Lee, Wilson and Weiss, and the third had a good dance-like swing to it. But the harpsichord sound was still swallowed up by the hall.
The second half of the concert was better and more consistent, doubtless because the musicians had adjusted to Johnson Hall, and it got off to a snappy start with the Second Concerto, featuring the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s David Washburn as the soloist. This is among the hardest of all trumpet parts, but Washburn played it without any sign of strain, carefully protecting his embouchure by leaving out a measure or two of tutti. And one benefit of the acoustic in the hall is that the trumpet did not overwhelm everything else but fit right in with the rest of the orchestra.
Perhaps the most musically satisfying overall performance of the night came next, in the Sixth Concerto, led by the violist Yura Lee, whose full-length tree tattoo on her right leg, visible outside the bright red smock she wore, added a feeling of anarchic cool to the proceedings. But the best thing about the concerto was its sense of cohesion, which was helped by the expert cellist Dmitri Atapine, who played some of the viola lines and made them extra-memorable.
The concert ended with No. 4, led by Alexander Sitkovetsky, the Anglo-Russian violinist whose uncle, Dmitry, has had a large career as a celebrated violin soloist. Sitkovetsky clearly relished the role of soloist (one of three) in the first movement of this concerto, playing his showy solo part with vigor and dazzle. The last movement’s final fugue sounded sunny and confident, ending the night with a joyful sendoff.
Bach drew on Italian models for these concertos, following in the pioneering style of Antonio Vivaldi, seven years his elder, whose L’estro armonico, published in 1711, made a game-changing impact on concerto composition in the German lands. But what Bach made of them was entirely his own, and they remain the most remarkable examples of concerto writing from this period, fine as concerti by Vivaldi, Handel, Albinoni and many others are.
The Four Arts deserves credit for quickly saving the day for this concert and enabling the show to go on. It was not the best night for the Brandenburgs, but the second half was close to a triumph, and that just whets the appetite for next year. Wu Han has made the New York performance of these works a tradition at Christmastime; let’s hope they return next year so they can build one here, but in less soggy circumstances.