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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Concert Review: Child Is the Symphony

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at TullyScope.
Sir Roger Norrington.
Johann Sebastian Bach had twenty children, if you don't count P.D.Q. Bach. Ten of them survived into adulthood. Of them, four of his sons grew up to be famous composers. Wednesday evening's concert at Alice Tully Hall offered argument for the reappraisal of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, whose work serves as an important bridge between the music of his father and the classical style as developed by Haydn and Mozart in the latter half of the 18th century.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is an acclaimed period performance ensemble from the United Kingdom, under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. Sir Roger is now 77, and has had a long career leading period performance ensembles. Although he has met with wide criticism for his dry-toned, unromantic accounts of Beethoven, Wagner and even Mahler, these four symphonies and two concertos were ideally suited to his plain-spoken approach. They were played by the small orchestra (about two dozen, all told) with melodic drive and energy throughout.

The highlight of the performance was the C Major harpsichord concerto. It is difficult to play with lyricism on the harpsichord, but soloist Steven Devine overcame the limitations of that instrument. His cadenzas were played with beauty and skill, an impressive blend of dexterity and phrasing as he made the harpsichord sing.

C.P.E. Bach. Image © Naxos.
The same could not be said for the A Major cello concerto, with Richard Lester playing the solo part. Mr. Lester played with passion but hit some number of wrong notes in the first movement. Although he settled in and played the next two movements with singing tone and skilled bow-work, the errant opening undermined the whole performance.

When Haydn referred to Bach as the "father of us all", he was referring not to Johann Sebastianm but to C.P.E. Bach. This was proved by the four string symphonies on this program, which were written for a patron (Baron Gottfired von Swieten) who wanted Bach to push the envelope of instrumental writing farther than it had ever been pushed before. Using only strings and harpsichord, the younger Bach creates a riot of emotional color in the course of three movements each. Impressive, since each symphony is an average of just ten minutes in length.

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