The Cleveland Orchestra. Severance Hall, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. Ton Koopman, guest conductor. Music of J. S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046; "Wedding" Cantata, "Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten," BWV 202, with Teresa Wakim, soprano; Sinfonia in B minor from Cantata 209, "Non sa che sia dolore," BWV 209; Sinfonia in D minor from Cantata 42, "Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats," BWV 42; Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.
While Bach is primarily known as a composer of music for the church, there is more to that multi-faceted genius. Thursday evening, under the spirited direction of guest conductor and baroque specialist Ton Koopman, the Cleveland Orchestra gave us the secular Bach, a playful and inventive composer free from the restraints of the weekly church service, writing music by turns courtly, sensual, introspective, and exuberant.
Bach's well-known Brandenburg Concertos are miracles of the use of a limited number of instrumental resources: each of the concertos creates a unique sonic world. For these concerts, Koopman picked the first of the six concertos, filled with a rambunctious energy. It features a virtuosic solo violin, two horns playing at strenuous passages at a fearsome pace, and the stunning reediness of three solo oboes, as well as the usual band of strings and continuo. The mood was one of restless enthusiasm, the horns and oboes contributing their off-to-the-hunt energy to a string ensemble already eager to gallop. Especially memorable were the dance movements that end the piece -- a brilliant trio for two of the oboes with bassoon, a jaunty Polacca, a second trio for the horns and oboes, all framed by a lovely recurring minuet (the minuet at each repetition sounding like a new piece as Koopman brought new colors out of the orchestra).
Another exuberant piece followed on the heels of the Brandenburg. This was Bach's secular "Wedding Cantata," full of spring, flowers, fields, and -- of course -- love. Mr. Koopman conducted this cantata from the harpsichord, adding his well-known flair for improvisation to the texture. The cantata has no chorus, the vocal line being entirely sustained by a single soprano through five arias and intervening recitatives. The soprano was Teresa Wakim, a familiar figure in Boston-area early music venues and more recently in the Netherlands as well. Ms. Wakim brought to the part an expressive stage presence and a lovely middle range, though in the subdued opening movement her lower register did not effectively cut through the complex texture, and in general her high notes lacked the open, free quality that would have better projected the joyful nature of the arias. The arias are accompanied by a basso continuo and obligato lines in the solo cello, violin, and oboe, virtuoso parts beautifully rendered by members of the orchestra. (A side note: it would be helpful of the management to name orchestral soloists in the program when their parts are this prominent.)
Two Sinfonias followed the intermission. These were originally orchestral movements that Bach wrote as introductions to two cantatas, but here lifted from context. The first, a haunting and thoughtful piece, featured an expressive flute solo. The second featured angular and expressive lines in the strings, complemented by energetic and fascinating work from the wind soloists, two oboes and a bassoon. It was a pleasure to hear these rarely-performed segments, but I found myself wishing that we could have heard the rest of the pieces to which they served as preface.
Finally, three trumpets and timpani joined the others for the third Orchestral Suite in D, a grand piece for a (relatively) large ensemble. Mr. Koopman’s tempos were brisk and energetic -- except of course in the famous "Air on the G String," which was at once lyrical and energetic in its own way. Here Mr. Koopman's gift for expressive phrasing brought out little sighing motifs that hauntingly play off against the long melodic lines. In the faster movements, the timpanist, with his dry and powerful phrasing and his expressive rolls, was the presiding spirit over this exuberant and moving rendition of a great piece. The third suite is secular Bach at his very best, the work of a master who knows how to use the ordinary (in this case, lowly dance forms) in ways that surprise and delight, and to exalt the soul as much with this secular material as with his church music.
Mr. Koopman's presence as guest conductor this year and last has started to shape the Cleveland Orchestra as a serious site of baroque historically-inflected performance. Vibrato is considerably subdued, bow speeds are swift, phrasing has moved away from the long romantic line and added empty space where appropriate. All this has significantly improved their performances of early music, and quite clearly the orchestra loves playing with him, and responds with energy and precision. Even so, playing early music at the concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra inevitably involves giving up some aspects of historical performance. Among them are the intimacy of smaller halls, the chamber-music ensemble of smaller bands, and the “period sound” of historically authentic instruments, the woodier sound of baroque oboes, the piercing clarity of natural trumpets, and the gutsy power of valveless horns.
A final note about placement: the orchestra was appropriately reduced in size for this concert (I counted 28 strings, considerably fewer than the usual). Given the extra stage room that reduction gives, more thought could be given to rearranging the forces so that soloists can be physically positioned close to each other. At times, the brass and woodwinds playing at the back (as usual) were at a considerable distance from other important voices, such as the soprano and the solo violin, a distance that interfered with ensemble.