The coincidental 300th-birthday celebrations for Handel and Bach have been a fascinating experience. As Christopher Hogwood, that justly famed specialist in them both, observed in his commentary Saturday night at his last of four concerts of the two with the National Symphony at Wolf Trap, "How different they were."
The impression that this listener has come away with from a plethora of Bach and Handel in recent months is that of the two, Bach is the more intense and Handel is the more worldly. This is another way of saying that Bach is the more consistently formidable -- though this is a little like comparing the relative merits of rubies and sapphires.
Hogwood's program on Saturday showed, however, that this need not always be the case. The first half, which was all Bach, was poised and proper -- the pastoral "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 4 and the cantata "Weichet nur, betru bte Schatten," BWV 202, with no less a figure than soprano Elly Ameling the soloist. Both works were splendidly done, especially the latter, which is basically a sequence of captivating arias with solo instrumental obbligato -- all performed with the respect for Baroque style that one would expect from Hogwood, who has become today's Baroque superstar.
The Handel on the program's latter part, though, was joyfully more than proper.
As Hogwood observed in his remarks, the opening movement alone of the Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6, No. 1, overflows with seven or eight ideas, by comparison with Bach's characteristic economy of means. "I have a nasty feeling that Bach would actually have disapproved," Hogwood observed.
Well, Bach would have been wrong. The concerto proceeds at a variety of irresistible paces -- sometimes majestic, sometimes swaggering and always with an uninhibited abandon that would have been foreign to the more introspective Bach.
The National Symphony, which has had a crash course in Baroque playing from Hogwood over the last two months, played delectably, with grand rhythmic and harmonic pointing. American orchestras tend to play this music a bit too soberly, out of stylistic uncertainty. Not in this case.
Finally, there was the "Music for the Royal Fireworks," Handel's last and richest orchestral work -- trumpets pitted against horns, first violins pitted against second violins, grainy winds in the middle, the percussion roaring in support. Few other works have such e'lan.
Handel may not always have the metaphysical depth of Bach, but he certainly outscored his contemporary in panache. And nowhere more than in the "Fireworks Music." Hogwood, with his fine rhythmic sense and his appetite for sonic textures, made the most of that Saturday night.