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Washington Bach Consort struggles onward

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Flute Sonatas, B. Kuijken, E. Demeyere
(Accent, 2000)

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Viola da Gamba Sonatas, J. Savall, T. Koopman
(Alia Vox, 2000)
Washington's entire community of musicians was shocked and saddened when J. Reilly Lewis died from a sudden heart attack this past June. No group of musicians, however, was more deeply affected than the members of the Washington Bach Consort. Since its founding in 1977, the group has known no other leader, and it is difficult to imagine this particular ensemble managing to go on for long without him to inspire and unify it.

The first of the group's chamber music concerts this year, heard last night at First Congregational United Church of Christ, offered some hope. Executive Director Marc Eisenberg explained that a provisional plan to follow if the Consort lost its leader was put into effect. Harpsichordist Todd Fickley, who led this concert, will serve this season as acting artistic director, while the board of directors conducts a search for a replacement. Fickley certainly knows the musicians, having served as Reilly's assistant for many years. He provided sparkling, technically assured accompaniment in four instrumental sonatas, a welcome constant as the quality of his partners fluctuated. Fickley even supplied one of Reilly's most omnipresent, if occasionally vexing contributions to a Bach Consort event: the gift of gab, in long narrations before each piece. The idea for the program was Reilly's, but it was Fickley who managed to bring it to execution.

Colin St. Martin's performance of Bach's second flute sonata (E minor, BWV 1034) was what brought me out to Penn Quarter on a Friday night, with the streets clogged by a Wizards game at Verizon Center. St. Martin's playing on the Baroque traverso is a regular highlight of many concerts by the Bach Consort, Opera Lafayette, and other ensembles. Here he worked marvels with the old instrument, creating pleasing forward motion while at the same time taking time to place all those tricky high notes just right in the first movement. The fingerwork was astonishing in the fast movements, especially the devilish arpeggiated passages in the second movement (all flutists know the sections I am referring to), where the breath support was seemingly endless. Unlike the other soloists for the most part, St. Martin added graceful ornamentation to the third movement, accompanied by Fickley on the delicate lute stop of Reilly's harpsichord. The only slight misstep was Fickley's over-registration of the harpsichord in the closing movement, which worked against the flutist but did not faze him at all. It was a performance that could rival my favorite recording, by Barthold Kuijken, who was one of St. Martin's teachers.

The sonatas for viola da gamba are perhaps my favorites among Bach's instrumental sonatas. This performance of the second sonata (D major, BWV 1028) was disappointing, for its caution, for its intonation issues especially in the double-stop passages. One of the violin sonatas (E major, BWV 1016) was better, with fewer but still noticeable shortcomings of intonation in the solo part. The concluding work was the G major trio sonata (G major, BWV 1039), which brought together all three soloists, with the gamba finally providing the sustaining bass line that had been missed in the other pieces. The decision to perform it with traverso on one line and violin on the other was not felicitous. The violinist was able to hold back her sound to allow the flute to be heard for the most part, but she also tended to rush, especially in the second movement.

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