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Washington Bach Consort

In recent years, the Washington Bach Consort has taken to styling itself "The Nation's Premier Baroque Chorus and Orchestra," using the phrase on their Flash Web site and in the program for their Sunday afternoon concert at the Harman Center. Since that assessment is not credited to a newspaper critic or other independent source, we must assume that the words were chosen by someone within the organization. If so, it is an act of hyperbolic hubris, a Cassiopeian boast, that cries out for comment, and the lot appears to fall to me to pose the question. Is the Washington Bach Consort actually the nation's premier Baroque chorus and orchestra?

Sunday's concert was generally good, on par with most of the group's performances, but there were enough sounds that were frankly mediocre to cause a reasonable person to say nay. This performance of five concerti for violin and harpsichord was rife with the problems of intonation and accuracy that Pinchas Zukerman famously criticized as proving that period performance must be an aberration. As lead soloist, concertmaster Tim Haig played with consummate musicianship, but at the fleet tempi of many fast movements (sometimes arrived at after considerable disagreement in the opening bars, as in BWV 1043 and 1052), the other string players struggled to keep up or underplayed.

The slow movements of BWV 1041 and 1043 had a pleasing lilt but may have been just a notch too fast. The contributions of two other violin soloists, especially in the triple-violin concerto BWV 1064R, were valiant but marred more often than not by squeaky, imprecise playing. The ultra-capable harpischord soloists were Scott Dettra and the group's director, J. Reilly Lewis, who both played extremely well on BWV 1062, Bach's reworking of the concerto for two violins as a double-harpsichord tour de force. It was a mixed concert in many ways, and the polite applause offered by the group's supporters (who did not fill the Harman Center's mid-sized hall) was tellingly brief.

Cassiopeia mosaic from Palmyra,
Syrian National Museum
Over its 30 years of playing the music of J. S. Bach in the Washington area, the Bach Consort has made three concert visits to Germany (1981, 1985, and 2000) and released three recordings on minor labels (a complete Bach motets set from Pro Organo now hard to find, a very good pairing of the C. P. E. and J. S. Bach Magnificats from Newport Classic in 1999, and a worthy disc billed as volume 1 of a complete set of J. S. Bach's Mass settings from Loft Recordings in 2004). A new recording of soprano cantatas with Elizabeth Futral, presumably made in the wake of their 2006 concert collaboration, is expected. In their concert history, they have given good, sometimes excellent performances of all (or nearly all) of Bach's choral masterpieces, sometimes under distinguished guest conductors, and almost always here in Washington.

The best contribution the Bach Consort makes to Washington's musical life is their monthly cantata series, during the course of which the group has recently completed performing each and every Bach cantata at least once. As reviewed here a few times, these noontime concerts, offered free of charge to the public, are a treasured moment of peace in the busy lives of many people. Still, does this worthy history justify the group's self-appellation as the leading exponent of the HIP (Baroque) movement in the United States? Does the Washington Bach Consort really merit comparison to the best European Baroque music ensembles -- say, Les Arts Florissants or Les Musiciens du Louvre (France), Concerto Italiano or Venice Baroque Orchestra (Italy), the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Germany), or the Academy of Ancient Music (U.K.)?

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Bach Is Instrumental To Consort's Success (Washington Post, January 24)
On balance, while there is much to admire, it seems they are not there quite yet. By comparison with the situation in Europe, the HIP movement in the United States is generally moribund, but groups like Apollo's Fire (Cleveland) and the Boston Camerata at least travel more regularly and are known more widely outside Washington. In fact, Le Monde named the Boston Camerata as "America's foremost early music ensemble" at one point, but that group's specialty would be medieval music (although they have made recordings of Renaissance and Baroque music, too).

The next concert by the Washington Bach Consort is a noontime cantata (March 4, 12 noon) at the Church of the Epiphany, featuring Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131) and organist Diane Heath playing the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 531.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

O, snap! I agree--time to call shenanigans on runaway self-aggrandizement in the Washington Music Community. Here's another tip: being located in the District doesn't automatically mean that you are "the nation's" anything. Makes as much sense as calling WMATA "America's Metro."