By Lawrence B. Johnson
CHICAGO — Time was, and not so long ago, when the very idea of a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by a modern symphony orchestra would have been dismissed as irrelevant at best and at worst a tasteless joke. But a radiant and fetchingly intimate traversal of those six “concerts avec plusieurs instruments” — as Bach formally presented them in score as a gift to the Margrave of Brandenburg — by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Kraemer on Nov. 20 pointed up how far we’ve come in the general assimilation, or perhaps accommodation, of Baroque practice.
If the Chicago Symphony conjures for record collectors the sound of Sir Georg Solti leading Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, be assured the forces employed in this single-evening Brandenburg cycle were somewhat sub-Mahlerian in scope. From the full orchestral glory of Brandenburg No. 1 — with a string complement of six first violins and six seconds, four violas, two cellos, and one bass — the ensemble for Brandenburg No. 6 shrank to two concertino violas against a “back bench” of two more violas, two cellos, and bass. And always with Kraemer standing to conduct from a harpsichord raised on a platform.
So we’re really talking about a handful of Chicago Symphony musicians, including several principal players, all brought into line and spirit with plausible Baroque practice by Kraemer, an authority on that subject. Kraemer is permanent guest conductor with the Manchester Camerata and principal guest conductor of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque. With various orchestras he has recorded a wide array of Baroque music and in the opera house has led many works of Handel as well as Monteverdi.
He’s also a skilled harpsichordist and, one must surmise, an efficient coach. From the CSO musicians, Kraemer drew not only concentrated and stylish playing, but also a pervasive buoyancy expressed in transparent textures and singing lines. While propulsive rhythms underpinned structure and animated every musical arc, one never sensed mere rhythmic percolation, forward drive as an end in itself. Here was the glow and brio of Bach, the warmth with the invention.
While Kraemer predictably split the concertos three and three with an intermission break, he did not play them 1 through 6. Rather, he shifted the sequence to create an effective finale for each half of the concert — starting with No. 1 in F major, perhaps the most recognizable of the six works, then turning to No. 6 in B-flat major for low strings; and to conclude the first half, No. 5 in D major, the one with the prodigious keyboard part, played here not by the conductor but rather by guest soloist Mark Shuldiner, with the bravura flair Bach no doubt would have expected. (Shuldiner is a member of Rook, one of Chicago’s newer period-instrument ensembles.)
Clearly, we’ve progressed far enough around the circle of historically informed discovery, its first manic obsession giving way to practical correction, to grasp how Baroque music can be played properly on modern string instruments. The sound Kraemer elicited from the Chicago Symphony’s consummate string players and their standard fiddles was luminous, vivacious, lighter than air. My list of highlights tops out with the luscious, intricate duet for violas (Weijing Wang and Catherine Brubaker) in the Sixth Concerto.
Likewise, horn players Daniel Gingrich and James Smelser tossed off the famous flourishes of the First Brandenburg with an élan that hardly left one wishing for valveless natural horns. Here and in the Second Concerto, principal oboist Eugene Izotov demonstrated why he’s a CSO star, with playing as eloquent as it was seemingly effortless.
The concert’s second half offered, in standard order, Brandenburg No. 2 in F major (with its brilliant clarino trumpet effects dispatched by CSO principal Christopher Martin), No. 3 in G major for strings and No. 4 in G major — the last a classic concerto grosso in which two flutes (Jennifer Gunn and Louise Dixon) and violin (concertmaster Robert Chen) flew virtuosic loops over a finely drawn landscape of strings plus harpsichord. It was a scintillating finish to a breathtaking marathon.
But it was set up by a gemütlich go at the Third Concerto, for strings alone, which always raises curiosity about how the conductor will bridge the gap between the fast-paced outer movements. Bach left only two chords by way of a transition. Sometimes that’s all you get; other times, the first violinist will spin out a cadenza. Occasionally, the whole ensemble will interpolate a movement from a different work of Bach. Here, by way of a slow movement, Kraemer joined CSO associate concertmaster Stephanie Jeong in a gentle, languorous turn through the Largo from Bach’s Violin-Keyboard Sonata in G major, BWV 1019. One more bonus in this Brandenburg bounty.
Kraemer will lead the Chicagoans in one further performance of the Brandenburg concertos at Orchestra Hall on Nov. 25.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music and theater critic for The Detroit News. He has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and various national publications.