United States J. S. Bach, Johann Chistoph Bach, Handel: Alina Ibragimova (violin), Katherine Watson (soprano), Nicolay Borchev (Baritone), Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen (conductor and harpsichord), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 18.11.2013 (SSM)
J. S. Bach: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A Minor, BWV 1041
Johann Christoph Bach: Mein Freund ist mein, from Cantata: Meine Freundin, du bist schön
Handel: Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 6, No. 10
Apollo e Dafne
Not that many years ago New York City was considered way behind both in its scheduling of Baroque music concerts and in its ability to support upstart groups. While other major American cities such as Boston and San Francisco had thriving early music groups and concert series, New York’s were few and far between. Some NY groups managed to hang on with encouragement and support from European conductors who specialized in early music; the presence of Andrew Parrott helped keep the New York Collegium in operation for almost a decade. This group’s spirit has re-materialised under the name of the Clarion Music Society, a name that had been used by an early music group started in the mid-1950s by Newell Jenkens. Under the recent leadership of Stephen Fox it has given some under-appreciated concerts that stand with the best.
Interest here in early music gained momentum around the time that the Historical Music Department in the Juilliard School of Music was established. Now in its fifth year, that program has been a source not only of professional-level players and groups but also of concerts and operas. Over the years Juilliard has brought in some of the best HIP conductors in the world including William Christie, Jordi Savall, and Nicholas McGegan. There are at least six new early music groups based in New York that have appeared in the last year or two and consist of graduates from Julliard.
The Baroque Unlimited Series at Carnegie Hall has scheduled a wide range of early music groups since it began in 2004-2005. This season opened with a new group formed in 2010 by English cellist and conductor Jonathan Cohen. Listening to the opening work on the program, Bach’s A-Minor Violin Concerto, a work that I’ve heard at least a dozen times in the past year, I felt a nagging ambivalence. Here was a group of young early music players giving their all but not adding anything new. Has the New York Baroque music scene changed so radically that I’m complaining that there are too many new groups? No, but now that there are so many groups performing here we may need to be a little more critical. We shouldn’t just be thankful to have concerts of this music available every day of the week in some theatre or church, but we should raise the bar as we do with any other classical performer or group. Emmanuel Ax, Evgeny Kissin, Maurizio Pollini, Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff all give solo recitals at Carnegie Hall, and one need only listen to them to see why they are special.
I don’t yet see yet what Arcangelo has that earns them a visit to Carnegie Hall. Alina Ibragimova was an ardent, accomplished soloist and I have no complaints to make about her talent and abilities; but Rachel Pine’s performance of the same work at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival this past spring excelled in every way. The same can be said for Nanae Iwata, a Juilliard Concerto Competition winner, and her performance of the A-Minor Concerto in March of 2012. Ms. Iwata took a very personal approach to this concerto, avoiding any showiness, and the result was a cool yet surprisingly satisfying interpretation.
Johann Christoph Bach’s “Mein Freund ist mein” (not to be confused with J. S. Bach’s duet of the same name from his Cantata No. 148) is basically a chaconne with vocal accompaniment. Soprano Katherine Watson would have more successful had she varied her dynamics. After the first thirty or so iterations monotony set in. She did a much better job with Handel’s Apollo e Daphne where she definitely had more interesting material in both recitatives and arias. Baritone Nikolay Borchev as Apollo gave a solid dramatic reading in the semi-staged production, only flagging a bit towards the end.
The tenth of Handel’s twelve Concerti Grossi was played energetically and brightened by the optional oboes that Handel added to some of his concerti in later editions of this opus. Although Handel did not specifically include oboes in this concerto, Cohen chose to do so, which added much color to the score.
The audience’s enthusiasm and applause brought the group back to play an encore: the last movement from the Opus 6, No. 10 that they had performed earlier. Whether the group wasn’t prepared or was miscued on the upbeat, the oboists (playing on difficult keyless original or recreations of original instruments) went badly out of tune: an unfortunate ending to a generally satisfying concert.