Originally published on March 27, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
For those (like myself) who are always interested in encountering new approaches to listening to music, San Francisco Performances offered two fortuitous couplings last night at Herbst Theatre. The first involved the contributions of countertenor David Daniels as guest artist in a performance by The English Concert, directed from the keyboard by Harry Bicket. The second was the decision to structure the evening in complementary halves (divided by the intermission), the first devoted entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach and the second entirely to George Frideric Handel. For those who do not keep up with dates, these two men were born within a month of each other in 1685. However, as the evening demonstrated, they took decidedly different paths; and music history has always been the richer for that separation. The two halves of the program also complemented each other structurally, each beginning with an instrumental “overture,” followed by vocal selections performed by Daniels with a “time out” for an orchestral interlude. All of these selections and interludes were excerpted from larger works, and this turned out to reveal an interesting distinction between Bach and Handel.
The Bach selections were all “sacred,” drawn from the cantatas, his BWV 232 mass in B minor, and the BWV 244 Saint Matthew Passion. The texts could all be interpreted as some form of prayer, whether taken directly from the mass or providing a poetic reflection on the relationship between man and God. There was no spectacle in this music, and Daniels did not try to force any on the audience. He opted, instead, for a clear delivery through which both music and words could speak for themselves; and (if we are to believe some of the anecdotes about Bach’s work experiences in Leipzig) there was more heartfelt sincerity in these performances than Bach himself probably ever experienced.
On the instrumental side the “overture” was the first of four ouvertures composed as a set and these days called “orchestral suites.” The first (BWV 1066 in C major) was set for two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo, beginning with a French ouverture followed by six movements each based on a different dance form. There continues to be questions over when (and therefore where and for what occasion) this music was composed, which means there is also a question as to whether the dance movements were actually intended for dancing. However, since our knowledge of how dance (particularly courtly dance) was practiced in the eighteenth century is about as impoverished as our knowledge of the performance of music and dance in Ancient Greece, we probably should not worry very much about whether the music lends itself to dancing as we know it.
What is more important is Bach’s skill in weaving together multiple lines of activity in works that are, on the surface, relatively simple binary forms. There are generally two voices in play, one of which “leads” while the other either “follows” or “observes.” We do not often think about Bach in terms of his wit; but he can be delightfully sly with his “secondary” voice. I have always been amused by the way in which the strings, in a “secondary” role in the gavotte movement, keep “intruding” on the primary wind voices with little military fanfares. If Bach’s sacred music austerely addressed the relationship between man and God, these secular ensemble works seem to comment more wistfully in inter-human relationships; and Bicket achieved just the right balances to make those relationships convincing.
Such relationships are the bread and butter of Handel’s secular operas, three of which, Radamisto, Partenope, and Orlando, were represented in the second half of the program. In contrast with Bach’s sacred music, these operas were spectacles with long involved plots entailing complex relationships among large casts of characters. Contemporary productions, such as last year’s Ariodante at the San Francisco Opera, usually impose judicious cuts to give the narrative more of a sense of pace than eighteenth-century audiences would have demanded. Thus, in the right hands these operas can be as dramatic as any nineteenth century opera; but I would argue that this dramatic element requires context. There is a tendency to view key arias as set pieces that can easily be extracted for concert performance, such as the one given last night; but I have now seen enough Handel operas to argue that such arias only achieve their fullest power when embedded in their surrounding narrative, however complex (if not overblown) that narrative may be. Thus, while Daniels’ delivery of Handel was as capable as it had been for Bach, I found myself missing those past occasions when I had heard him perform Handel operas in their entirety (properly abridged for the sake of production values).
Fortunately, there was no such sense of lack in the “overture” for the second half, the eleventh (A major) concerto grosso from the Opus 6 collection (HWV 329). As a concerto grosso, this work is more concerned with “accompanied virtuosity” than with the primary/secondary relation that Bach explored. In this case the virtuosity is covered by two violins and one cello against a full string ensemble. The reduced resources of The English Concert were ideal for balancing these solo voices; and the resulting display was dazzling, providing an excellent opportunity to appreciate the differentiating merits of the two composers of the evening.