Although Johann Sebastian Bach is reflexively reverenced and accorded a place among the greatest composers, we actually see his orchestral music performed live relatively few times in comparison with his lofty reputation. So it was gratifying to learn that the most recent Faculty & Friends Concert at UNC Charlotte not only included a couple of Bach's more frequently performed chamber sonatas but also a couple of the famed Brandenburg Concertos – plus the beloved Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3. The six Brandenburgs are usually first encountered on LPs or CDs and may strike the listener as mighty pieces if he or she hasn't read the liner notes to discover their instrumentation. Audience members at the Anne R. Belk Theater may have been surprised to find that the two Brandenburgs selected for this concert, No. 6 followed by No. 3, were performed by seven and eleven musicians, respectively. Or they may have presumed that these were specially reduced versions. Not at all. My 1980 Philips recording on LP with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and my 1994 Sony digital recording with Tafelmusik both show the same instrumentation. Outfitted with its acoustic shell, the Belk stage projected the sound of these chamber orchestras quite handsomely.
I wasn't as pleased with the sound of the sonatas. Elizabeth DeMio could hardly have sounded better at the Bösendorfer piano in the viola da gamba Sonata No. 1 in G, but that lovely sound overly dominated the somewhat distant sound of Mira Frisch's cello. Nor was I particularly eager for Frisch to dominate the opening Adagio with her thin tone and her lachrymose tempo. Frisch's spirit perked up in the ensuing Allegro ma non tanto, and she asserted herself more effectively toward the end of the movement, but until then, DeMio's choice of piano over harpsichord seemed even more ill-advised than in the opening movement. The tempo dragged once again in the Andante movement, and in the closing Allegro moderato, DeMio seemed to content herself with a subordinate role from start to finish.
After this inauspicious launch, we achieved lift-off when violinist David Russell strode onto the stage as DeMio's partner in the B minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord. DeMio's intro was quite lovely, but Russell's entry, beginning with the softest pianissimo, was amazing, lifted ardently on the wings of a wide vibrato. Though the hall was less kind to his violin than to the Bösendorfer, Russell balanced admirably with DeMio, capturing the drive and spirit of the ensuing Allegro and the lilting charm of the Andante. From the opening bars, Russell tore into the concluding Allegro with virtuosic relish as both partners joyously entered that transcendent zone where more than two musicians seem to be playing.
The piano was retired to the rear of the Belk stage during intermission, but DeMio returned for all of the orchestral music, playing a harpsichord that emerged from behind the Bösendorfer. Neither Russell nor any other violinist appeared for the Brandenburg No. 6, for the seven-piece composition is actually a concerto for two violas backed by three cellos, a double bass, and a harpsichord. Bach's favorite instrument was the viola, and he certainly wouldn't have changed his mind at the Belk. Richard Fleischman and Sheila Browne were wonderfully matched violists, though I wouldn't call them equals. For lightness of phrasing and fullness of tone, Fleischman may be the best violist I've heard since Yuri Bashmet, leading a concert at the Verbier Festival in 2004. Nor was Browne at all disappointing, complementing Fleischman beautifully with her thinner tone, while the lower strings – Eric Thompson, double bass; and cellists Frisch, Tanja Bechtler, and Brian Arreola – added satisfying body to the opening movement. Frisch proved to be a confident exponent of the countermelody in the lovely Adagio ma non troppo as Fleischman and Browne continued to impress, but the two violas were most delicious volleying back and forth in the closing Allegro, the "Minnesota Public Radio" part of the concerto. These volleys were all the more delightful for embellishing the stately main theme, played with verve at the perfect tempo.
Returning to the stage, Russell addressed the audience and framed the concert as a celebration of his five years at UNC Charlotte and a chance to unite longtime friends of the past with present colleagues at the University and students in the music department who are the future of the art. Those sentiments, reflecting on time, proved to be a fitting gateway to the timeless Air on a G String, which again was ideally tailored to the hall with a nine-piece ensemble – four violins, two violas, cello, harpsichord, and bass. In the context of the complete Orchestral Suite No. 3, a slower tempo might contrast more effectively with the ensuing Gavotte and the outbreak of trumpets and timpani, but played by itself, the slightly accelerated tempo was a fine choice for the Air, never marring the rich blend of the strings.
From the outset of Brandenburg No. 3, there was a contagious joy from the ensemble, with crisp stomping accents on the fourth and first beats of successive measures that often produced an emphatic thrust. Again the size of the group was beautifully gauged, but I thought that volume and tempo slackened a little too much before the concluding wave. DeMio had receded far into the background on the harpsichord in the previous two works, so it was heartwarming to hear a tasty sampling of her playing in the middle Adagio movement, which is usually given over to a solo violin or omitted on most recordings. Even more satisfying, the eleven-piece ensemble jumped into the Allegro finale at an exhilarating Presto pace – yet not as rushed as the acclaimed recordings led by Trevor Pinnock or Rinaldo Alessandrini, which would have sounded like they were pushing us out the door. With just a little more repose, the music created a soaring, insistent excitement, enhanced by the marvelous visual symmetry of watching three string sections with three players each perform, violins and cellos facing each other, separated by the violas facing us. Each of the sections had its moment carrying Bach's invention. Sharing centerstage once more, Fleischman and Browne reprised their excellence one last time.