Over the past decade, Helmuth Rilling has taken the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra every two or three years, generally for a grand choral work around Easter: Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” in 2012, Haydn’s “Creation” in 2009 and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” in 2006. And if the esteemed German conductor, now in his early 80s, has become associated with one composer, it is Bach, to whose music he returned in his latest program with the NSO, heard Thursday night at the Kennedy Center.
Rilling is often cast as a modern-instrument traditionalist on the levee that holds back the flood of historically informed performance ensembles. But his take on the opening work of this concert, Bach’s third orchestral suite, suggested that Rilling has been listening to his early-music colleagues and has even adopted their best ideas. He whittled down the string section to about 20 players — not quite the streamlined one-on-a-part version heard last month from the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr at Strathmore, but enough to strike a good, lean balance with the louder modern brass and woodwinds, if sometimes covering the harpsichord.
Hints of the early-music approach came through in the famous “Air,” which Rilling kept at a lithe tempo and with little Romantic stretching, and the strings limited the addition of vibrato, with crisp articulations all around in the Bourrée and Gigue. Rilling made the Gavotte a little stodgy by comparison, and the overture’s dotted-rhythm section remained stately and firmly subdivided, if a little overstuffed. Overall, it was larger than the forces Bach had, composing for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in the 1730s, a weekly concert series featuring performances by an ensemble of professional and amateur instrumentalists in various combinations. But so is the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
The concerto for oboe and violin (C minor, BWV 1060R) offered the chance to show off two of the orchestra’s principal players, especially oboist Nicholas Stovall, who since joining the NSO in 2008 has become a main attraction. The piece is actually a scholarly reconstruction, retrofitted to its original solo instruments from Bach’s later version for two harpsichords. The violin part does not always seem on equal footing with the oboe in this speculative version, and principal second violinist Marissa Regni was a little rushed and covered over. But her handling of the many fast runs in the third movement was impeccable.
Two of Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day turned this performance into the unofficial kickoff of the holiday concert season. The NSO had performed neither of them before, which makes sense, given that many of the solo numbers call for only a few solo instruments, not a full orchestra. Bach composed “Unser mund sei voll lachens” (BWV 110) for Leipzig in 1725, and its opening chorus with three trumpets set a festive tone. Tenor Nicholas Phan was a polished soloist in this cantata’s first aria, a voice that is exceptionally light, clear and true in intonation, even at the top of the range. German bass Michael Nagy had a burnished tone and excellent diction, with a solid but not overcooked or woofy sound.
German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung had a velvet-smooth touch in the alto arias, especially fine in “Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind” but also excellent in her contributions to the second cantata, “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), which Bach presented at his first Christmas in Leipzig in 1723 but had likely composed and performed elsewhere a decade earlier. The piece also featured the best work from soprano Julia Sophie Wagner, whose slightly squeezed and colorless tone was one of the few disappointments. The University of Maryland Concert Choir never overwhelmed the room with sound but was always on target, especially in the second cantata’s grand conclusion.
Assistant principal oboist Jamie Roberts covered herself in glory on the lead oboe parts in the suite and cantatas, allowing Stovall to focus on the concerto. Her performance of the oboe solo in the aria “Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget” was a highlight, as was her unexpected switch to an actual oboe d’amore, the instrument Bach wrote for in the alto aria “Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind.” Sized about halfway between the oboe and English horn, the instrument has a slightly musky, robust tone that one misses in its modern counterpart — not to mention that Bach wrote a couple of low A’s in the piece that cannot be rendered on today’s oboe.
This concert repeats Friday and Saturday nights.
Downey is a freelance writer.