Ensemble plays dynamic set of string symphonies

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Vivaldi Project presented a rare concert devoted to the music of one of J.S. Bach's famous sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, on Sunday afternoon at National Presbyterian Church. This relatively recent addition to Washington's burgeoning early music scene played all six of the composer's string symphonies, W. 182, from his years as Kapellmeister in Hamburg.

Baron Gottfried van Swieten commissioned these pieces while he was Austrian ambassador to Hamburg, reportedly telling Bach not to be constrained by worries about whether musicians would struggle with the difficulty of what he wrote. The virtuosity of individual players in the Vivaldi Project was certainly not at issue, with the violinists under talented director Elizabeth Field mastering seemingly countless runs and spiraling figures.

However, for an ensemble of just 11 string players plus harpsichord, the Vivaldi Project's sound was not always as tightly unified as one might have hoped, despite the clear beat from guest conductor John Hsu. Harpsichordist Joseph Gascho also kept his realization of the figured bass fairly conservative, perhaps missing a chance to liven up some of the dreamier slow movements.

This performance did bring home the hallmarks of the younger Bach's expressive style -- marked dynamic contrasts and unexpected harmonic shifts or juxtapositions -- and the intonation on those sensitive gut strings was largely clean. Performances of Bach's symphonies, arranged by van Swieten in Vienna, inspired Mozart, and later Mendelssohn played them in a student orchestra under his teacher, Zelter. Perhaps a long-awaited critical edition of Bach's works, to be completed for the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2014, will make his music less rare in performance and on disc.

-- Charles T. Downey

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