Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

with Karen Johnson, violin
Aug. 30, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Karen Johnson confessed to feeling “a little intimidated” as she prepared to play the Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin.

That apprehension is shared, or should be, by every violinist. This set of variations on a four-note motif is the summit of technique for those who play the instrument. Moreover, as Brahms remarked, the piece conveys “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.”

Performing the Chaconne in an all-Bach program that concluded this summer’s Interlude series by the Richmond Chamber Players, Johnson showed some evidence of taut nerves in the early going, mainly in crunchy, abrupt double-stopping; but she soon settled into an eloquently expressive, thoroughly absorbing reading of the piece, intonationally spot-on, unerringly well-phrased and intense in its concentration.

The concert was dedicated to the late Lewis T. Booker, a leading patron and organizational supporter of classical music in Richmond. This performance of the Bach Chaconne was as fitting an elegy as could be imagined.

Aside from the Chaconne, all the works on this program were arrangements or retouchings of Bach originals. (There’s ample precedent: J.S. himself frequently reworked his own and others’ music.)

Johnson, the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, now based in the Washington area, joined violist Molly Sharp and cellist Neal Cary in another Bach masterwork, playing about half of the “Goldberg Variations,” BWV 988, in the string-trio arrangement introduced in 1985 by the violinist-conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

This set of 30 variations on a decorously bittersweet air, originally written for harpsichord, also commonly performed on piano, translates quite well to strings. The set’s canons on ever-wider pitch intervals are enhanced by the different tonal characters of violin, viola and cello, and their contrasting voices help to clarify Bach’s intricate counterpoint.

Johnson, Sharp and Cary made such fine work of the abridgement that many listeners might have wish they had played the whole set. Had they done so, though, the program would have sprawled to more than three hours.

Oboist Gustav Highstein, harpist Lynette Wardle and cellist Ryan Lannan played an arrangement of Bach’s Sonata in B minor for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1030, here transposed to G minor. The more primary tone colors of the oboe make the biggest difference in this arrangement; the combination of harp and cello evoke a somewhat oversized harpsichord, not inappropriate in combination with the more penetrating sound of the oboe.

Highstein, Wardle and Lannan were satisfyingly lyrical in the sonata’s first two movements – their strolling pace in the opening andante was especially effective – and effervescent in the presto finale.

Cellist Cary performed Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009, for solo cello, with John Walter playing the piano accompaniment devised by Robert Schumann. “Accompaniment” may be too expansive a term for Schumann’s strategic insertion of chords to clarify harmonies and undergird rhythms; minimal as these were, they proved enough to give a romantic tint to a classic of the high baroque.