Germany's Tastiest Six-Pack

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 21, 2007

It baffles the mind why a holiday tradition is being made out of performances of Bach's "Brandenburg" Concertos, which received exuberant if occasionally casual accounts by the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center. The readings, played on modern instruments, were generally propulsive and vibrant, highlighting the brilliant way that Bach draws out rainbow-hued color and assigns prominence to the solo instruments.

But Bach put together these six marvels to curry favor with a potential imperial patron, not out of religious inspiration (for that, one can go to the composer's myriad of passions or cantatas). The danger of holiday affiliation is that these gemlike beauties -- pinnacles of the baroque -- will be heard both too little and too much, played repeatedly only in December and, like Handel's "Messiah," turned into an overdone celebratory cudgel.

Perhaps the trend is a necessary quenching of music-lovers' thirst for an antidote to holiday carols and jingles. Even so, listening to the New York-based chamber ensemble in the Terrace Theater, one had to be thankful for any chance to hear these masterworks together.

The "Brandenburg" Concertos do work perfectly for St. Luke's, which has great experience in these ever-varying scores. Filled with committed, genial and skilled musicians, the group created a collaborative, democratic air, as each musician got a chance to take a solo part and shine. After a particularly turned phrase, a player would professionally fall back into the larger ensemble.

Many standout soloists emerged. Flutist Elizabeth Mann brought purity and grace to Concerto No. 4, showing agility and a silky smooth tone. Harpsichordist Robert Wolinsky stunningly handled the expansive cadenza of Concerto No 5. Always there, clear and prominent, was the musical line, traveling up and down, expanding and contracting.

The out-and-out strength overall was the series of heartfelt slow movements -- adagios filled with pathos, andantes replete with a sense of newness and discovery. For just one instance, the second movement of that superbly rendered Fourth Concerto had a highly expressive, forlorn quality. It was also lovely when the players spiritedly took cues from one another, creating a feeling of hunt and chase.

The readings sometimes foundered on the Scylla of over-exuberance or the Charybdis of routine. Balances were off in Concerto No. 1, which came off on the sloppy and unfocused side. Concerto No. 6, placed second on the program, emerged a bit flat, with details lost in the flow.

The string-filled Concerto No. 3 was gorgeously polished, brimming with zesty color and alert precision. Concerto No. 2, riding on the dancing trumpet of Carl Albach, closed out the concert, sending the sold-out audience home with smiles.

Let's hope that the Fortas Series, which put on the evening, or another presenter will not wait for another holiday to program this resplendent music. How about breaking the cycle with a springtime concert?

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