“Mullova Plays Bach” Reviewed by Julia W. Rath

By Julia W. Rath, Around the Town Chicago
January 29, 2024

Jonathan Cohen, conductor and harpsichordist, directed the Music of the Baroque Orchestra in a lovely program of instrumental music during Sunday afternoon’s concert at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. This was a mostly Johann Sebastian Bach program, featuring the talent of the lovely Viktoria Mullova on violin. It was bookended by Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Selections from Les Indes galantes, Naïs, Hippolyte et Aricie, and Dardanus.”

“Le Bourgeois gentilhomme” is a five-act comédie-ballet written by Molière in the French (and translated into English as “The Middle Class Gentleman”). Lully’s music accompanying the production shifts between lively to stately, having to do with the actions of the various characters within the play. Notable is its oboe and recorder duet in the Deuxiéme Air (Gavotte) section, played to perfection by Anne Bach and Laura Osterlund. This is followed by the Marche pour la ceremonie des Turcs section, with Douglas Waddell leading the way on percussion. The chaconne in the last section is known for its repetitive bass line; compliments to Collins Trier on bass.

Next on the program was Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080”, which was played with all stringed instruments but for one bassoon. The key word in the title is “art”, where this composition is really a study in counterpoint. In Contrapunctus I, the violins build, eventually to take on the bass, and it is distinguished by its pauses as the textures withdraw. Contrapunctus IV builds similarly, and there is even a hint of syncopation. But it is Contrapunctus VII a 4 that starts with the viola (Elizabeth Hagen) that is the most novel of the set: where Bach uses previous themes but turns things around.

Then Mullova, the solo violinist, entered, wearing a gorgeous beige and black gown (not exactly an animal print but something closely resembling it). She performed Bach’s highly recognizable “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041, which was followed (after an intermission) by Bach’s “Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042; with its opening Allegro being familiar to PBS viewers. She played the violin with ease in a performance that was respectable but not irresistible. Despite her elegant bowing, there were too many moments when it appeared as if the violin played itself. I felt she should have exuded more expressiveness during the slower sections, particularly during the Adagio movement of Concerto No. 2. All throughout, Mullova was accompanied by Cohen on the harpsichord plus the rest of the instruments. It was interesting to watch Cohen conduct with his head while he was actively tickling the keys, and he would occasionally roll his hands at the orchestra, especially to bring in the bass. That said, there were many moments when it seemed that the orchestra was on autopilot.

The final composition on the program was the Rameau. Four pieces of music were featured, which once would have been played at the opera as part of an integrated instrumental, vocal, and dance spectacle. Two bassoons (Lewis Kirk and Preman Tilson), oboes (Anne Bach and Erica Anderson) and flutes (Alyce Johnson and Rachel Blumenthal) changed the admixture of sound, as did the incorporation of a small acoustic guitar with a soundhole cover—which was played by Brandon Acker during both the Lully and Rameau (as compared to his work on the theorbo during the Bach). With sweeping violins in the background, Cohen was once again on harpsichord, spinning his hands at the orchestra. This was a rather fun-loving piece. The vivace and accelerando of the Tambourins portion ended with such a stir and lilt that the audience involuntarily laughed. This was followed by the Naïs, Act I, Scene VII: Chaconne and the shift from 6/8 to 4/4 time, with its prominent oboe and bassoon duet. Staccato bass and detaché violin largely comprised the Act I: Overture of the Hippolyte et Aricie section, followed by distinctive drumming in the Prologue section. The Dardanus composition with its chaconne ended the afternoon with a Voilà!