At St. Andrew’s Church in Kent Sunday afternoon, The Sherman Ensemble performed their annual “Best of Baroque” concert. Artistic Director Eliot Bailen schedules this event early in the year when there is a dearth of classical musical performances in the region. He says that braving the cold at this time of year permits music to warm the heart. I can’t argue with that.
From its early roots in 16th century Italy with Gabrieli and Corelli, the Baroque movement spread north to France and Germany, then England. Corelli invented the concerto and provided a model for chamber music, while Lully in France might be considered the father of large orchestral music at the court of the Sun King. Vivaldi, who once boasted that there was not a stenographer in all of Italy who was able to write down his music as quick as he could verbally dictate it, expanded orchestral music with violin virtuosity in new directions while Bach and Telemann contributed counterpoint. This was a wave of popular mu sic that was not necessarily religious yet it often remained so.
The Sherman Ensemble opened with Handel’s Sonata in C major, Op. 1, no. 2 for flute and continuo. This gave Susan Rotholz an opportunity to forefront her melodic runs with backing from Dylan Sauerwald on harpsichord, a harpsichord (being built over the past five years) performing is inauguration weekend. While Vivaldi had popularized the three movement pattern (fast, slow, fast), Telemann and Handel had extended that pattern to four movements: slow, fast, slow, fast. The pacing and energy of this melding duo was most pleasing, which is what Baroque music is most often really about, the sheer pleasure of energetic sounds.
Eliot Bailen then played three movements from J.S. Bach’s solo cello Suite no.2. He prefaced this rendition by observing that each cellist plays this piece slightly differently and that it is sais that the way a cellist plays it presents a revelation off the cellists’ character. This suite is considered to be tragic. My favorite recording of it is by Mstislav Rostropovich. Bailen’s performance revealed that he is friendly, sympathetic, sincere, and resiliently wistful in the face of tragedy. There was great pathos and nostalgia in the concluding gigue. (Yo-Yo Ma manages to elicit dedicated industry and prideful joy in this piece, which has always puzzled me.)
Pastor Roger White of St. Andrew’s Church offered a few illuminating historical observations on the history of Baroque music, especially Telemann’s debt to Corelli and Lully.
The full ensemble emerged to perform J.S. Bach’s Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041. Last year Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova recorded this and four other Bach concertos in London on the Hyperion label to ecstatic acclaim. While it is not fair to compare recordings to live performances, I must say that I preferred Michael Roth’s violin playing where nuance received subtle shadings and more compelling rhythmic pacing. I found Ibragimova’s recording to be more Italianate than Germanic, and that her adroit fingering produced a flattened, though pleasant and energetic, tone. Roth was on fire with excellent backing. Bassist Peter Weitzner was especially effective in the slow second movement Andante. Doori Na on second violin offered dutiful echoes and slight variations. Sarah Adams on viola assisted in rounding out the sound, while Rotholz on flute and Sauerwald on harpsichord offered that higher pitch boost that turns chamber music into orchestral music.
Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Corellisante,” TW V 42: H3 followed. While the second and fourth fast movements provided homage to Corelli, the first and third slow movements memorialized the elegant and graceful gravitas of Lully’s processional court music, yet there was a distant German accent to the music as each instrument retained its own individual clarity instead of melding into a wave of music.
They concluded with Antonio Vivaldi’s Double Concerto in G minor, RV 517, one of my favorite Vivaldi pieces, especially as recorded by Isaac Stern with Jean-Pierre Rampal for Sony. There is an intoxicating echoing effect in this marvelous work and The Sherman Ensemble captured the contagious joy of living that this piece advocates. And what more than that can good music accomplish on a cold winter’s night?