by Frank Kuznik
The program was an accessible trio of Brandenberg Concertos (Nos. 1, 2 & 5), played with the vivacity that characterizes Apollo’s Fire performances, tempered by the steady hand of music director and conductor Jeannette Sorrell. Setting a measured tempo from the harpsichord, Sorrell served up textbook versions of the pieces that allowed plenty of room for the soloists, including herself, to shine.
The No. 1, with natural horn sonorities that need to be carefully balanced with the strings and oboes, may be the most difficult to bring to life. It started a bit heavy-handed, finally picking up zest and depth in the third movement. The focus was largely on concertmaster Olivier Brault playing a violino piccolo, which looks like a child-size violin. Brault showed virtuoso skills in his mastery of a difficult part on a specialized instrument, in itself a challenge to play. And he took full advantage of the spotlight, with a style that sometimes seemed more rock than Bach. It detracted a bit from the remaining strings, which sounded quite good in the later passages featuring the supporting violins and cellos.
Trumpeter Josh Cohen brought an equally refined level of skill to No. 2, making his brief solo parts look easy. Rearranging the players seemed to help the overall sound; it blossomed in the second concerto, taking on a warm radiance in the soaring acoustics of Fairmount Presbyterian. Tempo was again the key to the piece, which sounded exuberant without losing its solid, stately grounding.
A pair of short pieces — the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata BWV 12 and the finale from his Oboe Concerto in B minor (BWV 1056) — gave oboist Debra Nagy a chance to step up. Nagy, who runs her own Baroque ensemble, Les Délices, is a beautifully fluid player, proficient without being flashy. She turned in an eloquent reading of the Sinfonia, and a rippling version of the finale that managed to be both focused and bright.
The full ensemble finally found its footing in the familiar No. 5, which featured Kathie Stewart on flauto traverso and gave Sorrell an opportunity to dazzle on the harpsichord. She didn’t disappoint, taking advantage of the unusual segue in the first movement from basso continuo to melodic accompaniment to solo cadenza with a rare departure from scrupulous period detail, employing some of her own phrasing and emphasis to good effect. Hearing a distinctly modern interlude in a work written in 1719 always comes as a refreshing surprise if it’s done correctly, and Sorrell handled the moment with obvious relish and aplomb. This critic has never seen the No. 5 stopped so the harpsichord player can take a bow after the first movement, but Sorrell certainly earned the applause.
Stewart has a very sensitive touch on her instrument, and her extended duet with Brault on violin in the second movement provided some of the most captivating music of the evening. Their fluent playing and lush expression set the tone for the final movement, which featured a full, organic sound that reverberated nicely in the wooden-beamed space.
The players in Apollo’s Fire boast impressive credentials, with training ranging from strong local programs at Oberlin, CWRU and CIM to Juilliard and Eastman, and a long list of competition wins and prestigious positions in other Baroque ensembles. In coming together for performances with Sorrell, what stands out is their combination of discipline and enthusiasm, a deep knowledge of the material coupled with a sense of joy and celebration in their playing. Though audience-friendly, the Brandenberg Concertos are perhaps not the best measure of their skills. So it will be interesting to see what they can do with the passacaglia program of Monteverdi and Charpentier on tap next month.