Conductor Christopher Hogwood seems to have an unerring touch with the National Symphony. If he hasn't exactly molded the orchestra in his own image, then he has at least made them think in 18th-century terms, playing with a historical correctness imbued with a subtle panache.
For the third tricentennial installment last night at Wolf Trap, it was By and Large Bach and Hardly Handel, but in each case the result was dutiful, invigorating musicianship.
The NSO explored the opulent and spartan sides of Bach in his Suite No. 3 in D Major and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat Major, respectively. Three trumpets, timpani and a full complement of winds in the colorful Suite contrasted with the Brandenburg No. 6 written for low strings only (i.e., no violins), Bach's most sparsely scored concerto. Six string players, including two viola da gambas, plus Hogwood on harpsichord, made the most of a work in which brilliant passages are few and far between.
The eminent Dutch soprano Elly Ameling joined the strings and flutist Toshiko Kohno for Bach's secular cantata "Non sa che sia dolore," lending her warm coloratura in precisely articulated phrases. As a special treat, she performed an aria from Handel's opera "Julius Caesar." Her exquisite voice, with poetics to match, played right into the audience's heart.
Handel's Concerto a due cori No. 2 in F Major concluded the evening with a heated debate between wind soloists, most notably in the fiendishly difficult lines entrusted to the oboes.