Violinist Godfrey first among equals in Mercury’s fleet take on Brandenburgs

Sun Jan 12, 2020 at 2:16 pm
By Steven Brown
Concertmaster Jonathan Godfrey (here with harpischordist Mario Aschauer) was featured in Mercury’s all-Bach concert Saturday night. File photo: Runaway Productions

Can a workhorse double as a racehorse? In music, at least, the answer was yes as concertmaster Jonathan Godfrey proved in Mercury’s Bach concert Saturday night at the Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater.

With an ailing trumpet soloist, conductor Antoine Plante and the group had to jettison Brandenburg No. 2. The substitution was Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins—in which Godfrey was one of the soloists, in addition to handling all the violin solos in the scheduled Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3-5.

Yet Godfrey tossed off one concerto after another Saturday night with agility and precision, continuing tirelessly even as Plante put the accent on fearlessly speedy tempos.

The biggest test came in the finale to the sunny Brandenburg No. 4, where the Presto is bursting with quicksilver solo-violin filigree. As the fleetest passages arrived, Plante sometimes looked over his shoulder, as if he were watching to see if his soloist could keep up the pace. Godfrey always did, filling the runs with breeziness and the repeated-note barrages with bite.

Recorder soloists Priscilla Herreid and Sarah Schilling brought the concerto sparkle and nimbleness, dovetailing with Godfrey in the first movement’s brightness and the finale’s exuberance. The three added a touch of fervor to the Andante, welling up with its lyricism to complement the orchestra’s sonorous phrases.

Prodded by Plante, the orchestra gave that Andante a depth of tone that most of the Brandenburgs didn’t demand. By and large, the ensemble—numbering about a dozen strings—handled all the concertos with lightness, clarity and crispness.

With his headlong tempos, Plante cast the concertos above all as virtuoso showcases exuding energy. But he occasionally threw in a split-second pause to set off a movement’s sections, and he played up contrasts between forcefulness and hush that heightened the music’s drama.

In the opening Brandenburg No. 5, David Ross’ flute and Godfrey’s violin brought Bach a honey-and-lemon tonal contrast that especially enriched the slow movement. Godfrey’s adding vibrato to the melody’s long notes helped to bring out the music’s ardor without crossing into broad Romantic-period strokes.

Harpsichordist Mario Aschauer brought light, silvery tones to the slow movement’s lyricism, but the solo flute and violin nearly drowned out his instrument. In the two Allegros, with the orchestra also in action, the harpsichord–even though it stood at center stage–was generally audible only as a jingle around the music’s edges. 

But Aschauer was able to emerge in the first movement’s climactic solo cadenza. Rather than merely rushing through it–as some players do–he give it breathing space, so its changes of character and texture came across.

With one player to a part, the all-strings Brandenburg No. 3 put each musician in the spotlight. Plante, once again, went for sheer momentum, especially with his whirlwind pace for the third movement, and the orchestra had facility enough to keep Bach’s counterpoint racing along clearly most of the time. But in the finale, Plante’s tempo went beyond what the cellos could cleanly negotiate. Between the concerto’s two movements, Godfrey—as if he didn’t have enough to do—contributed a brief, pensive solo leading into the two chords that were all Bach wrote of an Adagio.

In the Double Concerto, Oleg Sulyga—Mercury’s principal second violin—played as adroitly as Godfrey. Sulyga’s tone may have been a touch darker–just enough to add a bit of contrast when Bach’s music had them volleying back and forth.

But the two soloists mirrored one another neatly in the impetus they brought the fast movements and the expressive finesse they gave the Largo. And in the Largo, Plante and the orchestra’s delicacy gave Godfrey and Sulyga a flattering backdrop.

Mercury performs Franz Schubert’s Winterreise with tenor Nicholas Phan 8 p.m. Feb. 15 in the Wortham Theater Center.;  713-533-0080.

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