United States Jean-Féry Rebel, J.S. Bach, Haydn: Alexander Barantschik (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Ton Koopman (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 7.11.2019. (HS)
Jean-Féry Rebel – ‘Chaos’, from Les Élémens
J.S. Bach – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor; Orchestral Suite No.4
Haydn – Symphony No.100 in G major ‘Military’
As open to interpretation as orchestral music of the Baroque and Classical eras can be, a few aspects prevail, among them crisp articulation, lively tempos, and rhythmic vitality. Played by modern symphony orchestras — whether on original or contemporary instruments — the focus inevitably goes to the dance music that makes up much of the various movements.
That’s true in Bach’s Violin Concerto No.1 and Orchestral Suite No.4 and Haydn’s Symphony No.100 ‘Military’, the centerpieces of this week’s subscription concerts conducted by early music champion Ton Koopman. Heard in the first of three performances the most compelling were the slower sections.
In the concerto, the expressive Andante emerged with consummate shading and sonority. Soloist Alexander Barantschik, the orchestra’s concertmaster, drew ravishing tone from his Guarneri and articulated a variety of subtle nuances to Bach’s languid figures. He and Koopman raised the level of tension gradually and let it resolve with a sigh.
The shorter outer movements, though taken at a speedy enough clip, lacked the sprightliness and vivacity that should mark this nimble music.
These contrasts were even more pronounced in the orchestral suite. It delivered the majesty and brilliant color of the broad French-style overture, due in large part to the three Baroque trumpets led by principal Mark Inouye. But when it moved on to the dance music, the energy flagged. The double Bourée missed the bounce, a Gavotte thumped a little too heavily, and a double Minuet didn’t quite float as it might have done. The finale, titled ‘Réjouissance’ (‘rejoice’), seemed only mildly happy.
Other elements were solid enough, with accurate intonation and impressive attention to dynamics and rhythmic steadiness, making for amiable but forgettable readings in all the Baroque works.
The Haydn opened with a sonorous Adagio and tripped lightly enough through the first-movement Allegro. Things perked up the most in the second movement Allegretto, especially when the three percussionists, led by principal Jacob Nissly on bass drum and switch, marched on stage for their musical entrance, adding the triangle and cymbals of Janissary music that give the symphony its nickname. That and their re-entrance in the finale were the jauntiest moments.
Perhaps Koopman’s focus on the more serious-sounding aspects stemmed from the opening, the six-minute ‘Chaos’ from Les Élémens by Jean Féry Rebel. A contemporary of François Couperin, Rebel opened this work with the orchestra of strings, flutes, bassoon, tenor drum and harpsichord intoning all seven notes of a D minor scale at once. The dissonance of this tone cluster, believed to be first notated in the history of music, was a startling and unnerving way to begin a Baroque- and Classical-era concert. Gradually the movement pointed toward greater clarity as it unfurled the clashing, overlapping gestures representing the four ‘elements’ of earth, air, water, and fire.
Koopman and the troops rendered this seriousness with appropriate intensity. Too bad the musicians had a bit of trouble livening up the dances in the latter works.