State of the Art

Going Bach and forth

Monica Huggett (white hair, left) leads the Portland Baroque Orchestra through Bach’s violin concertos on a new CD.
Monica Huggett (white hair, left) leads the Portland Baroque Orchestra through Bach’s violin concertos on a new CD. Portland Baroque Orchestra

The mail brought an album of Bach violin concertos, played (in part) and conducted by Monica Huggett with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. My first thought was, “Do I need this?”

I already have recordings by Henryk Szeryng (urbane, eloquent, modern instruments) and Andrew Manze (faster, vigorous, period instruments), plus individual Bach concerti by Oistrakh, Heifetz and other fiddlers. People have put this music on acetate, wax, plastic and the Internet for almost a century. What could be left to say?

I knew Huggett’s work from some fine Vivaldi recordings with the Raglan Baroque Players. So I put it in the player to listen half-attentively. Then I put down my book and really listened. Then I got the point.

First, this album holds not just the famous three concertos (A Minor, E Major, Double Concerto in D Minor) but two concertos for three violins each, which contain some of Bach’s densest writing. I had never heard one of the latter, so I learned something.

Second, the album uses five different soloists. The tone changes a little from piece to piece: sometimes mellifluous, sometimes a little rougher, sometimes with a sharper attack and sometimes with a more relaxed one. The ear stays refreshed that way.

Third, you can always listen to a masterpiece and hear something new. That may be the hoariest clichè in the world of the fine arts, but it’s true. I heard accents I hadn’t always observed (maybe I had never listened closely enough) and enjoyed the slight astringency of the Baroque-era style.

Germans don’t have a monopoly on Johann Sebastian; the acclaimed Oregon Bach Festival has performed his work for 45 years. (Not coincidentally, Huggett and the PBO played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” there in April.) Maybe the London-born Huggett and her American players come to this music encumbered by fewer preconceptions.

The album has come out on the PBO’s own label, and it’s the third in a series of Bach recordings; the other two offer oboe concertos and the St. John Passion. That’s the norm these days: Orchestras make a CD, release it to the target audience of fans who know them and send it out into the bigger world in hopes of tangential sales. (Note to the Charlotte Symphony: Time to think about this.)

Not all of these orchestras or recordings have something to say, especially when the repertoire’s so familiar. But after nearly a hundred years of Bach on discs, this one does.