Music review: Berkshire Bach achieves sheer perfection in concert

Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2016

Berkshire Bach celebrated its 25th season with a concert of 18th-century music Saturday at the Academy of Music in Northampton. The group is professional, and every one of its members could be a soloist if called upon, as many were in this concert. Kenneth Cooper directed from the harpsichord.

The program began with Vivaldi’s concerto for two trumpets, with Allan Dean and Neil Mueller as soloists (these excellent and versatile performers are also horn players). This was an excellent choice since the Academy’s auditorium is heavily curtained and an audience of more than 800 in winter clothing meant less clear acoustics than, for example, at Smith College’s Sage Hall. The clear sound of the B flat trumpets playing in their high register overcame the dull acoustics and the audience knew immediately that they were going to have an exciting evening. Vivaldi’s strong rhythms and the cheerful playing of the trumpets was the perfect introduction for a concert of baroque music.

A complete contrast followed, the Christmas Concerto of Archangelo Corelli, who was about 30 years older than Bach. It is one of his Concerti Grossi, usually fairly short works for strings in three movements. Corelli himself described this work as “composed for the night before Christmas.” It is in nine short movements, each (except in one case) separated from its predecessor by a silent moment. In this program, these silences were filled by the fine baritone voice of Benjamin Luxon reciting the narrative from the Gospel of Luke, 2. 8-20. Luke’s focus is on the shepherds watching their flocks by night, who went to Bethlehem to see the wonderful birth of which the angels had told them. Corelli’s music, then, is largely pastoral in nature, being more vigorous as the shepherds reach Bethlehem. The last movement is a gentle and very beautiful Pastorale.

There followed a vigorous performance of Bach’s violin concerto in A minor with Eugene Drucker as the soloist. Drucker is the first violin of the Emerson Quartet, whose fine playing could be heard at the South Mountain concerts near Pittsfield in the last two seasons. The work is remarkable for its Andante, in which the lower strings play a repeated bass theme over which the soloist plays an elaborate aria.

The second half of the program consisted of Bach’s second and third Brandenburg Concertos. The soloists in the second concerto were Ronald Gorevic (currently on the music faculty of Smith College) on the violin, Judith Mendenhall on the flute, Meg Owens on the oboe, and Gerald Serfass on the piccolo trumpet, an instrument that can play the extremely high notes in Bach’s composition. The soloists were splendid, and the fine playing of Mendenhall on the transverse (i.e., modern) flute and Owens on the oboe more than held their own against the brilliant sound of Serfass’ trumpet.

The final work on the program was Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto — perhaps the best known of the six Brandenburgs. It requires nine string soloists with a bass foundation (excellently played by Peter Weitzner). In this performance there was also a wind section in which Vivaldi’s trumpeters played horns and the fine bassoonist, Stephen Walt, was notable for his continuo playing, as he had been in the works of the first half of the program.

While Bach wrote just two chords between the first and last movements, the Adagio from his sixth violin sonata was inserted in this performance as a tribute to the memory of the violinist, Joseph Silverstein, friend and colleague of the performers.

This was a delightful evening’s music, performed by players whose musicality and technique were perfect. It is tempting to make the comparison, nevertheless, with the concert by the Arcadia Players in March 2012, when they presented all six of the Brandenburg concertos. Their forces were even smaller, for there were never more than 12 players on the stage at one time. It is exciting to know that here in western Massachusetts, two fine baroque groups, led by distinguished conductors, can perform the music of Bach and his contemporaries with different interpretations and the same perfection.


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