Bach: A Break from the Rush Hour

United StatesUnited States Bach: Isabelle Faust (violin), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Labadie (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 20.3.2013 (SSM)

Bach: Sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats
Violin Concerto in A minor
Violin Concerto in E major
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major

I’ve been to several concerts with Bernard Labadie as conductor, but this was the first time I’d seen him conduct an orchestra other than his own period instrument group, Les Violons du Roy. I’ve also attended New York Philharmonic Orchestra concerts conducted by early-music specialists, but none have succeeded as well as Mr. Labadie in getting a period-instrument sound out of this orchestra. While both Alan Gilbert in his performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Labadie used smaller string sections, Gilbert’s players were all over the place with vibrato (except cellist Carter Brey who used little, if any, perhaps in preparation for his Bach cello suite cycle). Labadie must have been stricter in his rehearsals in asking for minimal vibrato, and the string players took his instructions to heart. Their sound was fresh and clean.

The concert opened with Bach’s sinfonia from his forty-second cantata. “Sinfonia” had and has many meanings, but Bach used it to refer to an opening to a cantata that is purely instrumental and not vocal. Many of his sinfonias were taken from earlier works: the sinfonia for the fifty-second cantata, for example, comes from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Sometimes Bach reprised the movement in its entirety, but at other times, as in the opening to the twenty-ninth cantata, he transcribed a work that had been written for another instrument, in this case the Prelude to his second violin partita. The project probably took him as long to do as it would to write a sinfonia from scratch. The sinfonia performed here is of unknown provenance but it certainly sounds like a movement from a concerto with two sound groups that play against each other. The soloists are a bassoon and two oboes, and the second group is the orchestra. Unfortunately, Labadie didn’t isolate the groups as well as he should have, and much of the solo playing was drowned out by the orchestra.

Isabelle Faust performed two of Bach’s violin concerti with such ease and comfort that you forgot how demanding the scores are. The second movement of the A-minor concerto was played with a naturalness and sensitivity that seemed completely egoless. No grand statements were made here, just the music as if it were being played for the first time. Her Stradivarius, the so-called “Sleeping Beauty,” did anything but sleep. Its timbre is otherworldly, and the purity of her sound was helped by her minimal use of vibrato and her subtlety in phrasing. I barely heard the orchestra when she was soloing: Labadie rightly chose to be no more than a support for her all-encompassing playing.

For the third orchestral suite, Labadie brought in other members of the NYPO. Before the downbeat, I questioned the need for him to double or triple the instrumentalists, but again his decision was the right one: the density of the score was well able to support a larger orchestra. This is music of a near grandiloquent nature, based on the French music of Lully and his successors; the overture follows Lully’s style even to the use of a short motif in the middle section. The justly famous and poignant Air never sounded as sweet as it did here. Perhaps the final movements were faster than would normally be the case for the specified dances, but in the end everything seemed just right, including the promised one-hour length of this charming Rush Hour Concert.

Stan Metzger