I’ve heard and written about Thomas Crawford and the American Classical Orchestra (ACO) often enough that I feel I should hardly need to say how good this period-instrument ensemble is. Just a few months ago they played Mozart on instruments of the type that composer would have scored for. So who better than the ACO to bring us J.S. Bach on period instruments?
Four Centuries Old, Yet Universal and Timeless
On April 5 the orchestra, the ACO Chorus, and a handful of wonderful soloists delivered precise and inspiring performances of Bach’s best-known motet, Jesu, meine Freude, and his Easter Oratorio. Glorified by the superb acoustics of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, this four-century-old religious music transcended its church origins and became both universal and timeless.
The further back in music history you go, the more enlightening it is to hear performances on period instruments. Music from the 17th century and earlier is often played on instruments no longer in fashion – violas da gamba instead of modern cellos and violins, for example. Much of the soul of the music of a milieu is tied in with the specific sounds audiences would have heard at the time.
But when we get to Bach and the 18th century, we most often hear the music on modern instruments. In Bach’s case especially. First, because he is played everywhere and by just about every trained musician in the Western world (and far beyond), and modern instruments are naturally what most musicians know how to play.
Second, because his music has proved almost infinitely transcribable. So what if a piece was originally written for the harpsichord? We’ve probably heard it on piano, synthesizer, guitar, mandolin, and who knows what else, appreciating it as much as its first listeners did. In fact Bach expected much of his music to be transcribed, not enslaved to one instrument.
Period Instruments Kept Alive by Dedicated Musicians for the Benefit of All
That said, in the case of Bach’s orchestral music, and especially his choral masterpieces, period-instrument performance adds to the experience. The mellower timbre of gut strings, the bright, silvery tone of baroque trumpets, the warmness of the baroque oboe d’amore, the tighter boom of small kettledrums – these all help create a feeling of intimacy even in a large modern concert hall.
Intimacy also arises from the presence of a relatively small ensemble and choir, and from soloists adept at context-sensitive dynamic control. The ACO’s Bach concert had all of those.
Counterpoint, as Maestro Crawford had the musicians and singers demonstrate in a brief talk beforehand, is everywhere in Bach’s music. A superb example came late in the motet, when soprano, alto and tenor soloists sweetly limned Bach’s counterpoint in the “Gute Nacht” section.
The hymnlike final piece banished “mournful spirits” with solemn beauty, a fine setup for the Easter Oratorio. This grand work ought to be programmed more often. It begins with a fanfare-like wakeup call led by the trumpets, in this case valveless baroque trumpets. Further on there are major contributions from the oboe and arias for soprano (Chloe Holgate), tenor (Lawrence Jones), and alto (Helen Karloski). All these soloists turned in clear, dextrous performances, as did baritone Steven Eddy in his featured moments.
Holgate’s aria depends on complex counterpoint between voice and a solo instrument, in this case the violin (switched at the last minute because of a flautist’s absence). Similarly, Karloski’s and Jones’s arias feature the woodwinds. All were performed superlatively.
Karloski brought the open timbre of a mezzo-soprano (which she is) to the alto aria. That contrasted with the more muted tone of the excellent alto singer from the choir, who had intertwined admirably with Holgate and Jones in the motet. As Crawford mentioned in his introduction, Bach was known to give important arias to the alto voice, not to mention including it in counterpoint. This evening showed how either a mezzo or a pure alto can realize these parts effectively.
It’s a real treat to hear the ACO Chorus, too. For these occasions Crawford assembles a small group of singers who would surely have made Bach proud. They melded seamlessly with the orchestra, singing with both the precision and the devotional character that this eternal music demands – “devotional” in this context meaning with dedication to the ineffable music itself. And again, the choir’s small size adds to the feeling of intimacy.
The ACO itself is a relatively small orchestra. But there was nothing diminutive about these magical performances.