Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: Terry & Kong

Lisa Terry, viola da gamba
Joanne Kong, harpsichord
Jan. 30, University of Richmond

by Francis Church
guest reviewer

J.S. Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord are rarely heard together, and even more rarely in their original instrumentation. Usually, one or another is played on cello, the viola da gamba’s modern successor, and piano, and programmed as a warmup for Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy or whomever.

Such was the case some years back when cellist James Wilson and pianist Joanne Kong opened a recital in the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall with the second of these sonatas, in D major.

Such was not the case in this program, in which Kong, at the harpsichord, was joined by Lisa Terry on the viola da gamba. And the twosome essayed all three of these sonatas in one fell swoop without intermission (but with some enlightening commentary thrown in).

The performance was an eye- and ear-opener. With the lighter texture of both of these instruments, the sonatas were like quicksilver instead of gold. The players were perfectly in balance, a difficult task when they are played on modern instruments. Terry negotiated the seven strings of the viola da gamba with remarkable ease and plenty of smiles. Kong, who has given us such harpsichord masterpieces as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” was the ever faithful collaborator.

While the gamba sonatas may lack the intellectual firepower of the six suites for solo cello, which are more frequently performed, they nonetheless have a charm of their own that make them more accessible to the average audience. Last night’s audience was hardly average; one could detect many early music buffs in the sizeable crowd.

The sonatas, especially the first in G major, and the second, have plenty of musical and intellectual fodder, especially Bach’s signature counterpoint, in each of their four movements. The third, in G minor, is somewhat weaker, more in the form of a concerto in its three movements, as Kong explained. It was indeed a technical tour de force that left one’s tongue and ears wagging.

Especially poignant was the third slow movement of the first sonata, which one observer has noted, depicts Jesus’ ascent to Calvary. One never could quite pluck Bach’s Christian faith from his musical output. Nor, as last night’s recital revealed, could one extract Bach’s joy in music. Kong and Terry exploited both in a delightful hour and a quarter of music-making that seemed far shorter.

Francis Church, retired music critic of The Richmond News Leader, is a cellist and avid chamber music lover and player.