Bach and Handel on steroids


After a bumpy - make that rainy and muddy - start to its outdoor concert season at Oregon Ridge early last week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its indoor Summer MusicFest in the safety of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Friday night.

The program, also presented the night before at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, was billed as "The Best of Baroque." It was nothing of the kind. Not an unadulterated note of Bach or Handel or Vivaldi to be found. Better to have called it "The Best of Big Band Baroque," since most of the concert held full-orchestra, larger-than-life transcriptions of music originally written for smaller forces. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To tell the truth, I've always gotten a kick out of supersized, romanticized, now politically incorrect arrangements of baroque repertoire. And in the case of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, which began life as an overstuffed showcase for wind instruments (two dozen oboes among them), it's not much of an aural stretch to hear it played symphonically.

Hamilton Harty's 1930s orchestration of that Handel favorite doesn't just enrich the sound, but also thickens the flavor. This is Handel reincarnated as Brahms, and the BSO's amiable associate conductor Andrew Constantine had the orchestra luxuriating in that lush texture as he got the program rolling with the Fireworks Overture.

Later on, he offered a more direct Handel-Brahms connection - Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel, originally a piano piece, presented in the orchestration by British composer Edmund Rubbra. Here we had just a smidgen of actual baroque, in the form of the 1733 Handel tune that Brahms used as a starting point. The rest was pure fancy - Brahms' brilliant variations from 1861, Rubbra's imaginative reworking of them in 1938.

Constantine made a persuasive case for the infrequently encountered Rubbra-ized score, which abounds in deftly crafted instrumental coloring. Variations 27 and 28 could have been penned by Tchaikovsky, 9 and 19 by Elgar. The BSO responded with alert, dynamic playing.

Speaking of Elgar, he was represented by his arrangement of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor. There is so much of Elgar in the piece, temperamentally as well as musically, that some of it (almost all of the Fantasia) sounds exceedingly far from the baroque world, but still somehow well-connected in spirit and truth - like a lovingly hand-tinted colorization of an old black and white photograph.

By contrast, Leopold Stowkowski's Bach transcriptions from the 1920s and '30s are closer to computer-generated graphics, deliciously vivid and deliberately grand in their virtuosic demands on an orchestra.

Constantine was a little too reserved in his approach to the Bach-Elgar item, especially the Fugue portion; a stronger shot of emotion would have helped. But he was wonderfully unrestrained in the Bach-Stokowski Toccata and Fugue in D minor and had the BSO tearing mightily into the music. Great stuff.

Another Bach-Stokowski gem, Sheep May Safely Graze, received a warmly phrased performance, aided by elegant woodwind playing.

Two selections gave the concert a taste of more authentic baroque and baroque proportions - Pachelbel's well-worn Canon in D for strings, which flowed by pleasantly, and Telemann's Concerto for Two Violas.

The Telemann work does not give the soloists a lot to do; this isn't a bravura-minded concerto. But the BSO's Peter Minkler and Christian Colberg made the most of it, producing a mellow tone, blending seamlessly and articulating with admirable clarity, as Constantine ensured smooth support from the ensemble.

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