The concept of predestination, a precept Bach held as part of his devout Lutheranism, maintains that salvation is reserved only for the most faithful. A similar rule holds true for historical performance, as in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s concert under the direction of Julian Wachner at Calvary Presbyterian Church. The most faithful fans of period instruments enter musical heaven at a historical concert, while those lacking faith remain damned on earth.
I am in the latter camp. In my solipsistic world, I would predestine certain aspects of the Philharmonia concert and historical performance in general to be saved, and leave the rest to languish. For parts of the concert were breathtaking, lively, affective.
Take the countertenor Andreas Scholl. His dulcet voice was poignantly communicative, especially in Handel’s aching “Dove sei” from the opera Rodelinda. The laments of the second aria in Bach’s Cantata No. 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” gained pained immediacy from Scholl’s performance, while his ornamentation in three other Handel arias (including an encore) was tasteful and exciting. And the way his voice billows out of quiet in an expressive crescendo or peals in his pure upper range is among some of the more sublime singing I’ve heard.
The historical oboe, similar to Scholl’s voice with its clarion tone and vocal quality, was another delight of the Philharmonia concert. The stark Adagio of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major and the eloquent paired lines of the Sinfonia from his Cantata No. 42 emphasized the plangent lyricism of the oboe, while Telemann’s Concerto in F major for violin, oboe and two horns showcased oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s virtuosity.
But other elements of the Philharmonia concert left me confused and unengaged. I yearned for an occasional impressive forte, of the sort that modern instruments can achieve. It was difficult for me to discern pitches in the rapid bassoon part of the aforementioned Bach Sinfonia, so that it became indistinct burbling, and was nearly inaudible. Almost every passage featuring the valveless natural horn was similarly afflicted by muddied melodic contours. While playing anything remotely complex on that instrument is admirable because of the extreme difficulty involved, melodies on it sound to me like approximations that I have to fill in. The presence of two natural horns in the Brandenburg turned the opening Allegro into a raucous brawl, perhaps between sinners who are not predestined for salvation.