Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 13, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

All-baroque programs are tricky to program. The style’s usual constructs and modes of ornamentation and expression adhere to fairly strict formulas, posing the risk that one piece will sound pretty much like another. This hazard of sameness can plague successive offerings from even the most ingenious and substantive composers of the era – including Johann Sebastian Bach, the most ingenious of them all.

The risk was compounded in the Richmond Chamber Players’ all-Bach program, sampling works from the half-dozen years (1717-23) during which Bach served as Kapellmeister (court composer) in Cöthen, one of the miniature principalities that dotted 18th-century Germany. Most of Bach’s better-known instrumental works, other than organ pieces, date from these years, before he became cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and spent most of his time writing religious music.

The Chamber Players’ artistic director, violist Stephen Schmidt, and his colleagues tempered stylistic similarity with instrumental variety, with Schmidt playing the Sonata in G major, BWV 1027, for viola and harpsichord alongside harpsichordist Joanne Kong playing the “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue,” BWV 903, and violinist Karen Johnson playing the solo Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, alongside an ensemble playing the Trio Sonata in C minor, BWV 1079, for violin, flute and bass continuo from “A Musical Offering.”

Johnson, the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, now performing with a number of ensembles in Washington, described the Third Partita as the “sunshine” piece among the six solo-violin sonatas and partitas, and played it accordingly.

To her customary combination of tonal warmth and brilliance, Johnson added the spontaneity and joyful quality of a child at play – not easy to pull off in music that calls for fully grown-up applications of virtuosity and stylishness.

Still more brilliance from Kong as she played the “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” at a very brisk pace and with striking variety of color and dynamism, defying the harpsichord’s usual tonal limitations. She displayed similar qualities in accompanying Schmidt in the viola sonata and joining cellist Neal Cary in the continuo of the trio sonata.

The latter work’s lead instrumentalists, violinist Catherine Cary and flutist Brandon George, were highly complementary voices and accomplished protagonists in a work that, once past its prelude, pre-echoes the classical sonata/concerto form in a lengthy allegro followed by a lyrical andante and a spirited finale.

Schmidt conceived the program as a double tercentenary, of Bach’s arrival in Cöthen and of the instrument that he plays. His treatment of the G major Sonata, originally for viola da gamba, nicely reconciled baroque style with the sound of his viola, which, like most antique fiddles, has been modernized to accommodate higher-tension metal strings and project at higher volume.

Schmidt and Kong took care to integrate and balance the tone and volume of the viola and harpsichord, bringing out the close weaving of sound and thematic material that Bach built into this work.