Matthew Halls Takes Bach’s Breath Away

United StatesUnited States Handel, Rameau, Telemann, and Bach: Matthew Halls (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 18.1.2013 (BJ)

Handel: Overture to The Occasional Oratorio
Rameau (arr. Halls): Suite from Pigmalion
Handel: Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3 No. 2
Telemann: Water Music: Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth
Bach: Suite No. 4 for Orchestra

The appointment of the English conductor Matthew Halls to take over next year as artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival seems to promise the festival’s public more excitement than could have been looked for in the work of his irreproachably serious—and to my ears irredeemably dull—predecessor, Helmuth Rilling. Whether that public can expect anything more profound than surface excitement from Halls is another matter.

If one word could describe the feeling that emerged from every fast movement in this program of substantial baroque works, that word would be “frenetic.” Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, less often performed than No. 3, is by some margin the more rhythmically daring and original of the two—but Halls drove it at such a breathless clip that its frequent cross-accents could scarcely be apprehended. (It was, I think, the celebrated conductor Felix Weingartner who observed that a relatively moderate tempo does more for the rhythmic life of music than an extremely fast one.)

It was, however, not only sheer speed that sapped the effect of this and the other four works on the program. Equally damaging was the orchestral balance, or rather lack of it, throughout the evening: there seemed to have been no effort to bring the bass instruments—strings and bassoon—into any kind of appropriate relation with the sounds of violins, oboes, and (in the Handel overture and the Bach suite) trumpets.

Only against the background of the usually steady bass line can the rhythmic explorations of the upper instruments get a proper grip on the listener’s ear, yet the bass line was so close to inaudible as to leave most of the music exhaustingly shrill as well as rhythmically amorphous. Among the few movements that avoided those faults was the Bach’s pair of minuets, making it the more regrettable that Halls opted to omit the repeats in the da capo of Minuet I, along with others in the suite.

Here, as throughout the evening, principal oboist Ben Hausmann covered himself with glory, playing his frequently quasi-concertante lines with dulcet tone and eloquent phrasing. There were, indeed, many other instrumental contributions of high artistry, from violinists Cordula Merks and Michael Miropolski, violist Arie Schachter, cellist Efe Baltacigil, and Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby on piccolo. (I’m not sure whether “piccolist” is a word.)

If only the strings had been allowed time to make their points with decent ease and leisure, Rameau’s picturesque inventions, Handel’s gorgeous melodies and textures, and the wit and zest of Telemann’s entertaining programmatic piece could have amounted, with the Bach suite, to a delightful evening in the concert hall. As it was, while it must be remembered that the conditions of the recording studio are less challenging than those of live performance, for anyone who heard this concert and whose ears are aching for an aural corrective, the superb CD set of the Bach suites that Philip Pickett recorded with the New London Consort nearly 20 years ago would fulfill the need admirably.

Bernard Jacobson