Sometimes authenticity in playing Baroque music gets in the way of execution. Not so with the Handel and Haydn Society concert Saturday afternoon at USM-Portland’s Hannaford Hall.
The playing was exciting and propulsive throughout, led by violinist Aisslin Nosky, who is a ball of fire. It was sensitive to the style and nuance of Baroque performance but also full of emotion, as in the slow movement of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (BWV 1043), which Nosky played with Christina Day Martinson.
I had always preferred the keyboard version of this work, but the singing voices of the violins in the Largo, and their marvelous interaction, changed my mind.
The program began with a short and ferocious version of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Major (RV 151) “Alla Rustica,” which begins with a Presto, rests for a second or so in the Adagio and finishes with an Allegro almost as fast as the opening movement. It was over in an instant, but the effect lingered like that of a flash of lightning.
It was followed by the great Handel Concerto Grosso in B Minor (Op. 6, No. 12), also played at a relatively fast tempo, which set off the familiar Aria: Larghetto e piano, perfectly.
To return to the Bach, the highlight of the program, it was played almost like a magical ceremony, with the members of the orchestra ringed around the soloists, even if that meant turning some musicians’ backs to the audience. The result was a seldom-heard fusion of soloists and ensemble. If it also required five or ten minutes of tuning each instrument with others individually, so be it.
Every voice was so clearly stated that one could follow Bach’s polyphonic structure perfectly, wondering at the same time about the mind of a man who could improvise a five-part fugue for Frederick the Great after traveling all day in a post-chaise.
The concerto requires considerable virtuosity, but that could be taken for granted from Nosky and Martinson. Their rapid, precise execution of Bach’s ornaments, perfectly coordinated, was spectacular.
After that, the Symphony in B-flat Major (Wq. 182/2) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, while fine music and a model of the influential “new style,” seemed lacking a dimension.
The program ended with a delightful reading of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, written when he was 13, which adopts many of the models in his music library.
In the first and second movements, one is painfully aware of the young composer trying to avoid the obvious. But in the final Allegro, a kind of gypsy dance, he lets himself go in the wildest of modulations, strange codas and a cadenza that sounds like Rossini’s “Largo al Factotum.”
Nosky played it in a spirit of exuberant fun, which often had the large audience chuckling. It received a long standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram, He can be reached at: [email protected]