Every season Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), seems to get the opportunity to strip the ensemble (primarily the string section) down to chamber orchestra scale and prepare a program in which he serves as violin soloist and leader. Last season the program coupled Johann Sebastian Bach with George Frideric Handel, featuring three of the former’s “Brandenburg” concertos and the second of the latter’s Water Music suites. The result was an intimate encounter in which every performer was also a listener, taking guidance from all colleagues with Barantschik as “first among equals.”
Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, Barantschik returned in this capacity for the first of four concerts for this week’s subscription offering. This time Bach was coupled with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, all preceded by a concerto by Antonio Vivaldi as an amuse-gueule. Bach was again represented by concertos, this time featuring Barantschik and Associate Principal oboist Jonathan Fischer. The other major soloist was Catherine Payne on piccolo.
That’s right, the Vivaldi offering was his C major flautino concerto, “flautino” being the generic term for any variety of small flute. The notes for the program book by James M. Keller suggested that Vivaldi probably had a sopranino recorder in mind. However, given that Payne was performing with a reduced ensemble of modern string instrument (except for the harpsichord continuo provided by Robin Sutherland), her piccolo seemed perfectly suited for the occasion.
While this instrument has a more limited range than the flute, it was certainly able to make the best of that range in the solo passages Vivaldi composed for it. With that limited range also comes a relatively limited palette of sonorities, but Payne compensated with considerable attention to subtle variations in dynamics and phrasing realized through low-level modulations of the tempo. Thus, this was not mere display of technical skill in negotiating Vivaldi’s intricate melodic lines; it was a fully-fledged expressive interpretation through a well-considered plan for how those lines should unfold. If this was a “warm-up act,” then it definitely raised expectations for the remainder of the evening.
The Bach performances definitely lived up to those expectations. The two concertos performed came from different periods of his professional life. The earlier of these, the BWV 1060 concerto for oboe and violin in D minor, was composed in 1720 during Bach’s period as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. As I have previously observed, Leopold was a Calvinist who did not believe that elaborate music should be part of worship; so Bach was most productive in composing secular instrumental music. BWV 1060 is actually a transcription of a C minor concerto for two harpsichords, but it provides much greater clarity of the relationship between the two soloists through distinctively different sonorities. It also provides an opportunity to observe Bach cultivating his skills on two solo instruments that would both play major roles in accompanying vocal soloists in all that sacred music he composed during his tenure at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
The other concerto was the BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor, composed in Leipzig, probably for one of the Collegium Musicum gatherings at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house. In other words this was music composed by Bach for a group of close friends, all of whom enjoyed the social experience of coming together to make music. Here again, there is ample opportunity for the display of technical skill; but, once again, that skill is tempered through rhetorical expressiveness, rather than flaunted for its own sake.
The solo work of both Barantschik and Fischer definitely prioritized this idea of technical skill modulated by expressiveness. This was most evident in the interplay between the two of them in BWV 1060. Indeed, the relationship that these instruments have with each other very much anticipates how each would subsequently relate to the solo voice in Bach’s later sacred music. As the only soloist in BWV 1041, Barantschik clearly ran the show; but he was always attentive to the participation of his reduced string ensemble and continuo.
The two Mozart selections were both composed about half a century after the Bach concertos. Both are “occasional” pieces that amount to a collection of movements that were probably gathered upon some request. The selection for the first half of the concert was the K.136 divertimento in D major; and the program concluded with the K. 239 serenade, sometimes called the “nocturnal” serenade.
K. 136 is basically a string quartet with multiple voices on each part. It also shows the teenaged Mozart feeling his inventive oats, since the theme for the final Presto movement revisits the theme of the opening Allegro movement. With a major timpani part, it is hard to think of K. 239 as “nocturnal.” The serenade is actually a concerto grosso with solo parts for not only timpani (Raymond Froehlich) but also a string quartet of sorts (Barantschik joined by Dan Carlson on violin, Katie Kadarauch on viola, and Scott Pingle on bass). The final movement is structured to allow each of these instruments (including the timpani) to take a cadenza; and each of those cadenzas was rich with improvisatorial spirit.
I have often observed that one can talk about jazzy jamming in Bach’s instrumental music (particularly when Zimmermann’s was the setting). However, we do not find that spirit in Mozart quite as often. It was definitely there in K. 239, perhaps made more evident by virtue of a leader who clearly knows all sides of his Bach.