Baroque chamber music with Larry Wallach, Lucy Bardo and Stephen Hammer.
For twenty-five years audiences have been urged to listen to baroque music on its own terms, and to erase centuries of musical revisionism, aesthetic distortion and performance malpractice. Drawing from the pioneering efforts of Dutch gurus like Franz Brüggen and Gustav Leonhardt, a generation of baroque practitioners has mandated “historicism” to yield the inherent vibrancy of this music. For some, an imperative was under way for wholesale antiquarianism – the eighteenth-century sound world appeared to be within practical grasp. First, the instruments had to be shorn of nineteenth-century adornments that lent a lush and romantic sound. Violins were modified with flatter bridges, restrung with cat-gut, and played with smaller, lighter convex bows. The natural shine of the open string was no longer masqueraded with vibrato; phrasing, tempi and ornaments followed the many baroque rule books that have survived. The modern ebony oboe with the unmistakable metal filigree of valves was replaced by more guileless forebears, made simply of wood with bored holes. The sewing-machine sound of ponderous “modern” harpsichords was then replaced by lighter wood construction that yielded greater resonance and a surprisingly expressive sound. Our modern pitch was brought back a half-step to the eighteenth-century standard; keyboard instruments were even tuned differently, making certain harmonies sound positively exotic.
The only problem with this “all-natural” approach was forgetting that such reforms would not a make a silk-purse musician from a sow-eared dilettante. All too often, baroque specialty concerts featured uninspired, but oh-so-historically correct, out-of-tune, tepid performances. Many authenticists spent more time thinking about theories of appoggiaturas then bringing out the soul of a piece. One wondered whether an artist was abnegating adulterated instincts, or merely being incompetent. Additionally, there is something philosophically intractable about extremists who seek to recreate the past given the irreversible evolution of human sensibility.
It was, therefore, a great treat to hear masterful and polished performances of this music that never betrayed the letter of the style yet never failed to be gracious, emotive, varied and thoroughly musical. The counterbalance of scholarship and musicianship was apparent Sunday afternoon at Simon’s Rock.
Larry Wallach and Lucy Bardo are no strangers to the region’s musical scene, and both are accomplished alchemists in the performance of baroque music. The two were joined by Stephen Hammer, a professor at Bard College and an internationally esteemed oboist. Although Mr. Hammer specializes in the baroque oboe, he was on hand for an alto recorder solo as well.
The program of sonatas and suites by Handel, Bach and Telemann really made the case for “going for “Baroque.” Bardo’s use of the softer sounding baroque cello allowed the all important bass-line to support the obbligato lines without muddying the texture or drawing undo attention to the bass. The baroque tuning of Mr. Wallach’s harpsichord (built expressly for him by Carl Dudash) offered a piquant tone color in both Bach French Suite #4 in Eb, and the Eb Telemann Trio #12. Unlike the mellow, heavily coated sound of the modern oboe, Mr. Hammer’s instrument reminded us of the outdoorsy roots of these winds that can assume a protean palette of edginess, stentorian brashness or mellifluous restraint. Mr. Hammer showed equal variety of color in his recorder playing. In the Telemann Trio in F, for example, the poignant Mesto began with a softly rarified tone which stood in complete contrast to his extroverted tone in outer movements.
The most complex work offered was Bach’s gamba sonata in D. Ms Bardo’s instrument is a genuine early eighteenth-century specimen with six strings. The sonata allows all of the soft silvery nasal colors of the gamba to infuse the harpsichord rather than overwhelm it. As is the case in many of Bach’s chamber sonatas, the keyboard obbligato is on an equal footing with the soloist; Mr. Wallach’s astute phrasing and ornamentation were a beautiful complement.
The Telemann Eb Trio will be repeated on June 6 as part of the Spring Berkshire Bach concert. Not to be passed up.