Last night in Herbst Theatre, harpsichordist Richard Egarr began his return visit to lead the members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the first of four subscription programs. Egarr has been Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music since 2006, when he succeeded that ensemble’s founder Christopher Hogwood. When Egarr last visited Philharmonia Baroque in January of 2012, he presented a program of works by English Baroque composers spanning over a century.
This season his program had a significantly narrower scope, consisting entirely of four of the six “Brandenburg” concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. Egarr introduced the program by explaining that this music was never performed in Bach’s lifetime and that the manuscripts were unknown until they were discovered in the nineteenth century. The name comes from the dedication page; and Bach had written them as what amounts to a “job application” presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721. Bach’s application received about as much attention as a response to an employment opportunity on Craigslist, which is why the music quickly lapsed into oblivion.
Since emerging from that oblivion, these six compositions, each with its own distinctive approach to featuring solo parts, have established themselves firmly in the Baroque repertoire. In many ways they anticipate the highly social approach to music-making that Bach would enjoy after his move to Leipzig, where he would get together with his Collegium Musicum friends on Friday evenings to make music at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house. As has previously been suggested on this site, those gatherings had many of the attributes of what would be called “jam sessions” in the twentieth century; and it would probably be fair to say that what Bach sent to the Margrave of Brandenburg amounted to the eighteenth-century equivalent of what jazz musicians now call “charts.”
The spirit of jamming was definitely alive and well last night with Egarr leading the Philharmonia Baroque musicians. This was particularly evident after the intermission with the performance of the fifth concerto in the set, BWV 1050 in D major. In this case the solo instruments are flute (Janet See), violin (Lisa Weiss), and harpsichord (Egarr, conducting from the keyboard). Egarr went as far as to suggest that this may have been the first time that the harpsichord was taken out of the shadows of continuum accompaniment to serve as a concerto soloist. Bach was far from shy in giving the instrument pride of place in the concerto. Indeed, much of the first movement involves all the other instruments setting aside to allow for a long, extended, and highly virtuosic harpsichord solo, from which ideas keep popping up with the same imaginative and-another-thing rhetoric that made John Coltrane sound like a never-ending stream of invention when Miles Davis was supposed to be leading the combo.
The Collegium Musicum spirit of this particular performance was reinforced through Egarr’s decision that the ripieno parts should also each be taken by a single performer. Thus, the three soloists were complemented by Carla Moore on violin, David Daniel Bowes on viola, Phoebe Carrai on cello, and Kirstin Zoernig on bass. He took a similar approach to the third concerto (BWV 1048 in G major), which is basically scored for three violins (Elizabeth Blumenstock, Katherine Kyme, and Weiss), three violas (Maria Ionia Caswell, Lisa Grodin, and Ellie Nishi), and three cellos (Carrai, Tanya Tomkins, and Paul Hale) with continuo provided by Zoernig on bass and Egarr on harpsichord. This music has fascinating spatial qualities, which are clear on the manuscript pages but tend to get muddled when the music is played by a string ensemble, rather than nine soloists. Last night those spatial qualities were alive and well and thrived under both the musicians and the conducive Herbst acoustics.
The first and last selections followed the more familiar soloists-and-ensemble setting. The program opened with the first concerto in the collection, BWV 1046 in F major. The emphasis here is on diversity of solo voices, with particular attention of the magisterial sounds of a pair of horns (R. J. Kelley and Paul Avril), reinforced by three oboes (Marc Schachman, Gonzalo Ruiz, and Michael DuPree). The violin soloist (Kyme) plays a violino piccolo, which sounds a sixth higher than the violins in the ensemble. This allows for a stunning diversity of sonorities. It also demonstrates graphically how the “trio” section of a minuet (in this case two of them) actually involves three melodic lines.
The program concluded with BWV 1049 in G major, the fourth concerto in the set. This concerto is distinguished by having a pair of recorders (Hanneke van Proosdij and Andrew Levy) joining a solo violinist (Blumenstock). It is also the only concerto in the collection to have a fugue, which is the structure for the concluding Presto movement. As in BWV 1046 much of the virtue of this concerto arises from Bach’s imaginative blend of different sonorities.
The entire program dazzled under Egarr’s proclivity for lively interpretations. He is not shy about being a “fully body” conductor; and that includes often coaxing out just the right rhetorical stance through facial expressions. He was particularly expressive in taking one highly repetitive passage in the first movement of BWV 1048 (practically a foretaste of Philip Glass’ repetitive structures) and turning it into a gradual crescendo that finally bursts forth into what the Classical period would call the recapitulation of the movement, which then charges enthusiastically through the final measures. Eggar has a bit of Rowlf the Dog (the pianist who leads the pit band for The Muppets) in him; but his is a captivating personality that reminds the audience that these concertos are all about the act of making music in good company.