The Academy of Ancient Music, one of Britain’s foremost early-music groups, gave a splendid concert Saturday night at Strathmore under the direction of harpsichordist Richard Egarr. The program, consisting of all four of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, was part of a North American tour celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary.
Orchestras in Bach’s time were not the huge ensembles of 80 or more musicians we know today. For the Fourth Suite, the most elaborately orchestrated of these pieces, there were just 14 players onstage: two violins and a viola, three oboes, three trumpets and a “continuo” group, who play the bass line and fill in the harmonies, consisting of harpsichord, cello, double bass and bassoon, plus tympani. Instruments have also changed remarkably in the roughly 300 years since Bach wrote his Suites. Academy players use antique instruments or modern copies of them in an effort to get as close to Bach’s ideal sound as possible. In a large 1,976-seat hall like Strathmore’s, an orchestra this size can sound miniaturized. But if anyone had trouble hearing, you would never know it from the audience’s enthusiastic response.
Besides, members of the academy are all first-class players. Unfair as it may be to single anyone out, the extended flute solos of the Second Suite were brilliantly played by Rachel Brown. Cellist Jonathan Rees was a particularly sensitive continuo player, and violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk gave beautiful shape and contour to the Third Suite’s famous “Air.” The Academy’s trio of baroque trumpeters — Richard Fomison, Richard Thomas and Tim Hayward — played with great refinement and a combined sound of pure gold.
Rucker is a freelance writer.