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As the Kenan Institute’s Margaret Metz asked, rhetorically, in her introductory remarks, who needs Boston when we’ve got our own baroque festival right here? She presented the festival’s director, Glenn Siebert, of the UNC School of the Arts, whose brainchild the Magnolia Baroque Festival was, and the two waxed lyrical about the success the enterprise has enjoyed in just a few short years. Of course, it helps that among the leading lights of today’s HIP (historically informed performance) movement are Seattle-based violinist Ingrid Matthews, born in Chapel Hill and educated at the UNCSA, and lutenist John Lenti, also a product of the school, and that in addition Andrew Willis, one of the world’s leading early keyboard specialists, is at UNC-Greensboro, Brent Wissick, a renowned viola da gamba player and baroque cellist, is at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the phenomenal baroque trumpeter Barry Bauguess lives in New Bern. It’s worth noting that one of the first of the important HIP operations in the US – outside of Boston – was Ensemble Courant, of Chapel Hill, of which Wissick was a co-founder. But it’s also important to mention that the skill levels of today’s practitioners put some of the movement’s early artists thoroughly in the shade. The movement has matured, for sure, and the artistic ramifications of – for want of a better term – historically informed performance practice have now permeated much of the concert world as we know it. Surely in the future we will have “bi-lingual” violinists, violists, and cellists who will be completely at ease with the wide range of music from baroque to contemporary and with the abilities to introduce subtle but authentic gradations in the works of every school in between. Quoting Handel’s Acis and Galatea, “Happy, happy we!”
So the Magnolia Baroque Festival, which this year has been paying tribute to its historical roots with music from Salem, turned for its penultimate concert to major works by Bach. Watson Hall was virtually packed, and chances are good that there were few in attendance who hadn’t heard some if not all of the music offered. There was a version – by Bach himself – of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, followed by the violin Partita No. 2 (the one with the famous chaconne) and the gamba Sonata No. 2, and the evening was capped with the Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.
For the Brandenburg update, the soloist was Willis and the instrument was a copy of an incredibly early fortepiano. This little gem, made by David Sutherland, was dwarfed by the behemoth of a two-manual harpsichord that was played later in the evening. The original dates from 1735 and was by Giovanni Ferrini of Florence. As Willis’s program notes reveal, Ferrini was a successor there of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the fortepiano.
The fortepiano speaks very softly and without the percussive brilliance of harpsichords, and in most parts of the adapted Keyboard Concerto (No. 6) in F – listed as S.1057 (BB4 is S.1049) – it seemed more of an ensemble instrument than a solo one. It’s hard to imagine HIP players, one to a part, by and large, overpowering even this keyboard instrument, but in truth it was at its most prominent and prominently lyrical in the second movement, when the accompaniment consisted of continuo players only. That said, Willis dazzled throughout with his technical and artistic skills.
So, too, did Matthews in her astounding performance of the Partita No. 2. Who hasn’t heard at least its finale? Who has ever heard it like this?* The audience was basically spell-bound during this work and particularly so in the 16-minute chaconne. Those who have not heard Matthews play it are unlikely to be able to imagine what it was like in the hall. She brought to bear the special tones and textures of a superior instrument played with flawless technique and fueled by her superior artistry, atop which she’s a player who throws every fiber of her body into her work. There are alas times when words fail us, and this is one of them.
Following the intermission, Wissick and Willis turned to the Second Gamba Sonata. The notes – in this case by Wissick – make an argument for the keyboard part being realized on a fortepiano, and in truth the balance was exceptional, the insight from both players, keen, and the response from the audience, enthusiastic. Some may cling to cello-&-piano versions of this a while longer – it’s certainly a viable way to approach the music. That said, a pearl of wisdom from Wanda Landowska comes to mind – “you play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way,” (or words to that effect).
For the finale, there was the brilliant “Jauchzet Gott” cantata, scored for soprano, trumpet, strings and continuo. The solo artists were Tsatsanis and Bauguess. She was done up in a pink gown with a short white jacket, and her voice was richer and fuller than one often finds among early-music singers. The long, valve-less trumpet was adorned with a red and gold woven rope capped by a large tassel that swayed from side to side as the music emerged – with breathtaking accuracy – from the bell. Here the balance was exceptional, the playing, as fresh and incisive as at the outset nearly two hours earlier, and the effect on the audience, comparable. The place again erupted with applause, and it was clear that no one was inspired to let the artists go. Go they ultimately did, however, leaving fond memories of Bach revisited and revealed as perhaps never before in the lifetimes of some of those present.
To give credit where credit is due, these are the members of the ensembles not previously cited: Julie Andrijeski, violin, Karina Fox, viola, Tracy Mortimore, violone, Justin Godoy and Jennifer Streeter, recorders (in S.1057), and Joseph Gascho, harpsichord, and John Lenti, lute (in the cantata).
Finally, I want to quote here from the notes by George B. Stauffer for Murray Perahia’s outstanding CDs of the seven Bach keyboard concerti because this scholar nails the revision of BB4 better than anyone else I’ve read:
Concerto No. 6 in F Major … is the most interesting work of the set, in terms of Bach’s revisional process. The music is derived from [BB4] in G Major…. In its original form, the concerto is scored for solo violin, two solo recorders, and strings. When Bach revised the music, he retained the solo recorders and strings while replacing the solo violin with solo keyboard. But instead of revamping just the solo violin, he reworked the entire score, revising the recorders and accompanying strings extensively to create new contrapuntal relationships with the solo keyboard.
(For a review of these Perahia recordings, click here.)
*Matthews has recorded the Sonatas and Partitas, and her CD set is magnificent, but it does not compare with the impact of hearing her play “live.”