IN CONCERT: CamPac strikes its opening chord

September 15, 2008

Warren Jones gets it. When Camerata Pacifica opened its current season Friday evening in the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall, Mr. Jones offered Haydn’s last and most formidable piano sonata, and his reading, for the most part, was full of grace and insight.

The E flat Sonata is an exceptional composition. Every so often in music history, a great composer toward the end of his lifetime leaps into regions that previously were uncharted and writes music of unsurpassed verve and imagination that his earlier masterpieces in no way foretold. Verdi did this with his two final operas, “Otello” and “Falstaff,” and Beethoven in his last string quartets.

Haydn did something like this, too, with three piano sonatas composed in 1794. The last of these, in E flat — it’s his 62nd sonata for piano — has always been acknowledged as exceptional, melodically abundant and harmonically audacious. Sharing his later symphonies’ large-scale sonic scope and his string quartets’ impeccable attention to detail, Haydn’s sonata is thrilling from beginning to end.

Haydn was one of music’s foremost thinkerers, and he always was experimenting — with different mixes of instruments, with fresh combinations of sounds — but he never composed anything to equal the harmonic excursions in this sonata’s first movement. Its eccentricities are crazy, but crazy like a fox. Their cunning allows him to surprise us with a slow second movement that seems risky in every way possible. Music of great intimacy and reticence, it sounds as if it’s being improvised on the spot, almost like a fantasy, and with it, Haydn takes us to a realm that we hadn’t been before. The riposte to such a singular movement is a jaunty Presto, and it’s exactly with this sort of brio that the Sonata concludes.

After a few cautious moments at the Sonata’s start, Mr. Jones navigated the first movement’s currents with cool expertise, and in the subsequent movements he hit his stride. The orchestral effects of the opening sounded spot on and the more lyrical passages were played with finesse. Best of all, the development section, with its odd and beguiling harmonic migrations, was lucidly rendered and commanded our attention throughout.

Appropriately, Mr. Jones made the slow movement sound as if it were being coined on the spot; you held your breath in anticipation of what would come next. And in the playful finale, Mr. Jones made you breathe a sigh of relief with his witty and amiable virtuosity. With playing that was aware of both the music’s over-all shape and the nicety of its details, the performance, one imagines, was just about as the composer would have wished.

One could not say the same of the evening’s opener, Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, which was performed by an ensemble of seven led by flutist and Camerata founder, Adrian Spence. The problem was neither that the work was performed on modern-day instruments rather than on the “period” instruments more true to Bach’s time, nor was it that only a handful of musicians were involved rather than a larger aggregation.

The problem was that Mr. Spence couldn’t make the work come alive. There are modern celebrity flutists who can pull this off, such as James Galway, Mr. Spence’s compatriot, and period-instrument flutists who also can do the job, such as Janet See and Lisa Beznosiuk, preeminent, respectively, in the US and the UK. Here, the inner voices were consistently muddy, the lower voices were logy and the harpsichord was inaudible.

As a purveyor of blarney, Mr. Spence is unrivalled, and before the performance he informed the audience that we were about to experience a rendition that represented a rethinking of Bach, but this was not delivered. The performance by Mr. Spence and his colleagues was reminiscent of the days when Baroque performance was leaden and heavy-handed.

If you want to hear Bach truly rethought, grab a CD by French cellist Anne Gastinel (on the French label Na0x95ve), who, flying under the radar, has recorded Bach’s Cello Suites in renditions that are sensationally fresh and alive.