October 26, 2002

Harnoncourt offers lessons in Bach in Berlin


Johann Sebastian Bach
Suite No. 1 in C major
Violin concerto in a minor
Double concerto, BWV 1060
Suite No. 3 in D major


Berliner Philharmoniker
Nikolaus Harnoncourt - conductor
Thomas Zehetmair - Violin
Albrecht Mayer - Oboe

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Harnoncourt offers lessons in Bach in Berlin

by Nancy Chapple

With a 35-piece band of Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra members - strings, oboes and bassoon, trumpets, cembalo - Nikolaus Harnoncourt entertained a full house with four works by Johann Sebastian Bach: 2 orchestral suites and 2 concerti. Billed as a concert cum "dialogue," Harnoncourt spoke before each work. He is a typical Viennese raconteur, charming and knowledgable.

The evening began with the Suite No. 1 in C major. Harnoncourt spoke of the suites' dance movements, describing the people's mood when they danced the folk dances, rather than the movements' metric or formal structure. In the performance, the phrases were always long and flowing, over 12 or 16 or even 24 bars, and the articulation clear. The oboes were outstanding. The Courante had an elastic spring to its step. In the second Gavotte, the straightforward arpeggio line in the strings did not accompany the oboe melody, but took on a bouncing life of its own. The conductor told us he'd interpret the Forlane as a rollicking, ecstatic wedding dance - and it really took off. With an exaggerated emphasis on two-note phrases in the second Menuet, the movement was rhythmically quirky. The second Bourrée, a trio for 2 oboes and bassoon, was played as virtuoso chamber music with precision, drive and grace.

Thomas Zehetmair was the violin soloist in the a minor Violin Concerto. His tone was sweet as honey, with sparing vibrato. He deployed a rhythmic mannerism of stretching the beat minimally at a phrase's high point. Though the conductor put the brakes on the orchestra when he did so, it was unsettling. The violin tone remained satisfying in the deliciously slow second movement. The Allegro assai was built of long phrases across many bars, not the rocking 9/8 feeling of upbeat, downbeat, slide-through-the-second-beat familiar from other interpretations.

The second half began with the Double Concerto, BWV 1060, with Zehetmair and Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist of the Philharmonic, as soloists. Harnoncourt had stressed in his introductory words that concerto comes from "concertare," to rival or vie for attention. Would that the two had vied for our musical attention: Mayer knows how to make a tremendously exciting duel out of the piece, as could be heard in a performance with Nigel Kennedy and this orchestra early last year (also available on EMI Classics), but this paled by comparison. The oboist was constantly in movement, swinging and swaying and communicating with the conductor, the other musicians and the audience; Zehetmair, much smaller, was bent over the violin and tucked behind the podium. Their sound meshed together well, particularly in the third movement, but what was lacking was a real dialogue. Mayer plays the oboe as beautifully as can be imagined: exquisite sound and absolutely clear phrasing, breathing soul into the music. Zehetmair has perfect intonation and impeccable phrasing, but seemed colorless next to the giant oboist.

Harnoncourt introduced the third suite in D major by showing how he believes it should not be played ("I was an orchestra musician for 17 years in the '50s and '60s - and believe me, I suffered"): overly regular, no real rhythmic spark - exactly as notated. In his interpretation, the overplayed Air did not sound hackneyed: the harpsichord rolled chords strikingly, and the sound was opaque, not thick and mushy. Throughout the suite, the tempi were often excitingly fast but not rollicking - controlled and delicious - and the phrases spun out at great length. Overall, the performances of the suites were more interesting than the concerti because Harnoncourt experimented more. And it was a joy to get a sense of the conductor's sparkling personality in this forum.

(This review originally appeared at www.classicstoday.com)