James M. Keller reviews pre-Christmas concerts by the Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble and the Performance Santa Fe Orchestra
Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble The Santa Fe Pro Musica Baroque Ensemble’s annual pre-Christmas concerts at Loretto Chapel tend to follow a predictable format, purveying repertoire that plays to the group’s strengths and the audience’s expectations. This year’s installment, which the industrious musicians performed 12 times in six days — I caught the early show on Dec. 22 — opened with a spirited account of Handel’s D-major Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 5). It reached its apex in the penultimate movement, an Allegro the players invested with enjoyable sparkle and more than a little drama. A little-known Vivaldi motet followed: Longe mala, umbrae, terrores (RV 629), which begins by enumerating all manner of ills that beset the world (wars, plagues, rages, weapons, and so on) and then expresses hope that heaven will sweep them away and spread light on the land — a sentiment reinforced by a concluding aria consisting only of repeated bursts of “Alleluia.” Such a strange piece it is; the tallying of woes at the start naturally invites a somber setting in the minor mode, but it is hard to imagine why Vivaldi was inspired to stay in the minor for the last movement. I wonder if another minor-key “Alleluia” setting exists. More steadfastly cheerful was a second Vivaldi piece, Ascende laeta. Mezzo-soprano Drea Pressley was the soloist in both motets, of which the first makes extravagant coloratura demands. She also sang four carols of olden times, which were most successful when their arrangements enhanced the central spirit of the song — that is to say, in a vivacious rendering of “Patapan,” in which the violist beat on her instrument as if it were a drum, and especially the Wexford Carol, in which the instrumental ensemble kept things simple and supportive.
The concert stretched beyond the Baroque into the early Classical period thanks to an “Adagio and Rondeaux” for flute, strings, and organ by Johann Christian Bach. One wished the printed program had identified this music more precisely. The so-called “Rondeaux” is certainly the finale of the composer’s D-major Flute Concerto (CW C79), from 1769; what the Adagio is drawn from I cannot say. Rather than provide details about the piece, the accompanying
Vivaldi’s motet Longe mala, umbrae,
terrores (RV 629) begins by enumerating all manner of ills
that beset the world.
program note spoke of Mozart’s admiration for this youngest of Johann Sebastian’s sons. Indeed, one was struck by how much this elegant work resembled Mozart’s music of several years later, from about 1775 through 1778 — the works that carry Köchel numbers in the 200s. The piece represented the musical high-water mark in the concert. Carol Redman, playing an 18th-century-style flute, rendered the Adagio with broad phrases and surpassing grace, and she infused the passagework of the “Rondeaux” with warbling jollity.
Performance Santa Fe Orchestra Another reliable entry in the city’s seasonal calendar is the Christmas Eve concert with the Performance Santa Fe Orchestra that Joseph Illick conducts every year at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony provided opportunities for some the orchestra’s principals to show their considerable finesse, most impressive among them being flutist Jesse Tatum, clarinetist James Shields, bassoonist Alexander Onieal, hornist Julie Landsman, trumpeter Bill Williams, and cellist Jonathan Spitz. Particular interest attached to the work that occupied the concert’s second half: Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor (Op. 102), which featured the estimable piano duo of Anderson & Roe. Brahms wrote the piece to spotlight violin and cello, but Greg Anderson (half of the solo team) has transcribed it to spotlight two pianos instead.
Although this was the first public performance of his transcription, Anderson & Roe performed from memory — not a surprise, really, since as an ensemble they take greater pains than most classical musicians do about the visual effect they convey to an audience. Brahms did write numerous pieces for piano duet, mostly for piano four-hands, although he produced a couple of fine works for two pianos. Introducing the piece, Illick observed that the composer often had second thoughts about the instrumental combinations for which he was writing, such that a composition might end up using a completely different grouping from what he envisioned at the outset. That is true, although the Double Concerto is not among them. From the start, Brahms imagined it specifically to spotlight violin and cello. Indeed, he wrote it to be played by two specific musicians, and it was supposed to help heal a painful rift he had endured from one of them, violinist Joseph Joachim. (The cellist was central to engineering this nervous reconciliation.) This biographical subtext pretty much disappears when the piece is recast for a pair of pianos. On a musical level, one also misses the frisson offered by the athleticism required of string soloists. It’s not that the piano writing in Anderson’s transcription sounded easy or simplistic in any way, but rather that one was less struck by the sheer physical exertion involved in rendering it. Brahms often has the violin and cello playing in double-stops, which yields four-part harmony or counterpoint. Anderson fills out the piano parts considerably from there, making them idiomatic for the instruments even if the parts seem anchored in the pianos’ midrange. The piece already has a rather dense orchestration, and it was my impression that Anderson did not change this much if at all. The result was that the two pianos sometimes had trouble projecting over the orchestra, which played sometimes louder than it needed to.
Brahms’ Double Concerto did previously exist in a version for piano four-hands prepared by Robert Keller, who through the course of 20 years assisted in the editing and proofreading of Brahms’ works. His four-hands setting was published in 1889, two years after the concerto’s premiere, but it was really prepared more as a tool for studying the score without the hassle of convening an orchestra than as a rival to the actual piece. Whether Anderson leaned on Keller’s four-hands setting when preparing this new version I cannot say, but I suspect he did not, or at least not very much. The Anderson transcription is not going to supplant Brahms’ original in the public’s affection, but in this committed unveiling, it came across as an effective concert work, a useful addition to the regrettably small repertoire of concertos for two pianos and orchestra.
As an ensemble, Anderson & Roe take greater pains than most classical musicians do about the visual effect they convey to an audience.
Anderson & Roe