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Baroque Surprise with The Sherman Ensemble

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jan 6th, 2019

Benjamin Hochman, Susan Rotholz, Eliot Bailen, Gerard Reuter

The Sherman Ensemble presented its annual “Best of Baroque” concert this past Saturday at Christ Church in Pawling and St. Andrew’s Church in Kent, CT on Sunday afternoon. Every year they offer a thoughtful selection of Baroque programing, yet there was more satisfactory surprise in this year’s concert, due to programing and performance.

Opening with J.S. Bach’s Sonatina in B minor, BWV 1030, which is more often heard on organ, pianist Benjamin Hochman of Bard College and flutist Susan Rotholz delivered an arrangement that highlighted Rotholz on flute. The piano in the ambitious Andante opening supplied a menu of themes for the flute to choose from and elaborate at length in the succeeding slow Largo e dolce. Having let the flute run lyrical, the piano challenged the flute to accompany its racing pace in the following Presto where Rotholz not only kept the race-course pace but dominated in the climatic stretch. This sparer arrangement delightfully brought Bach’s playful humor to the fore.

Handel’s Trio Sonata in D minor, HWV 316, was performed next. Here Handel, like Fux or Fasch, composed in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) instead of the famous Vivaldi recipe (fast-slow-fast). Handel was inordinately fond of the oboe and noted oboist Gerard Reuter was here to showcase his tempo and sophisticated dynamics but nearly adopted the role of a mystical Pied Piper as he bobbed and weaved with his instrument so that half the audience was temporarily hypnotized while Michael Roth on violin brought the audience back to their lyrical senses. I have heard Rueter on recordings with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (of which he was a founding member); it was an impressive treat to hear him in person. This lively and youthful dancing spree by Handel nearly raised the audience to its feet. Here Eliot Bailen on cello and Hochman on piano merely had to content themselves with background support, as the violin and oboe alternately lead, yet arrived amicable agreement at the conclusion.

Benjamin Hochman next took to center stage to perform J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816, which is usually performed on organ. Here Bach discourses on seven French dances in a display of how these dances can wander into variations, concluding with a celebratory Sunday Gigue brimming with counterpoint: just when the audience might think that this simple primitive dance might be a yawning concluder, Bach fires it up with a marvelous display of fugal counterpoint that it becomes something of a religious transfiguration. I heard organists go through these dance paces and then light up the room with the finale. They usually play the Sarabande (third movement) too quickly in a mechanical fashion to arrive at the more exciting Gavotte more quickly, but Hochman provided a major surprise: he slightly slowed and broke the tempo to conjure a poetic, lyrical interpretation that nearly rivaled the concluding Gigue to which all organists are tempted to race to. While this was a wonderful concert, the exquisite Saraband was its mountain peak. I was vainly hoping that it might be done once more as an encore, but that was not to be.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Trio in B-flat major, TWV 42 B-1 was next. In the opening Vivace Roth took the lead, while in the following Siciliana Reuter’s oboe dominated. Having presented a French and Italian mode of music, Telemann intoned a more balanced ensemble sound where all Germans could play with democratic equality in the Allegro finale where piano and cello (as basso continuo) could more fully contribute to a more sophisticated ensemble sound.

They had intended to conclude with a rather simple and upbeat piece by Vivaldi, yet Rueter had persuaded them to perform an early piece by Johan Friedrich Fasch (1678-1741). This, too, was a major surprise as Fasch is usually considered as a minor footnote in Baroque music, yet Fasch’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo (as piano and cello here) FaWV N:B1 proved otherwise. The opening Largo set out a variety of theme that were explored by the ensemble in the lively Allegro that produced several harmonic highlights, sounds that I’ve never heard before. After this delicious feast, a joking Grave created such cute suspense that I could not help but smile. The concluding Allegro once more engaged all performers to near-levitating highs as they enjoyed their agreeable unity.

For encore they played a movement from Vivaldi’s RV 88. After the concert Bailen confessed that in rehearsal the Vivaldi appeared so simple that Reuter had prevailed in his argument to drop it, saying that the joke about Vivaldi’s compositions is STENCIL. There is much truth in that humorous observation, yet there are a few Vivaldi works of great merit.

In this concert The Sherman Ensemble made old Baroque music new, which is what real performers do at their peak. Both they and the audience had great fun in the process of hearing music played robustly with deep emotion and lively wit.