Review of the Sunday night performance by Byron Schenkman & Friends, which opened its third season at Nordstrom Recital Hall with Handel and Haydn concertos.
We usually think of concertos as big pieces performed in a large hall with a full orchestra behind the soloist, but that’s not how they were originally intended. Byron Schenkman & Friends, which opened its third season at Nordstrom Recital Hall on Sunday night, performed Handel and Haydn concertos as they might have been performed when written in the 18th century.
As Schenkman pointed out, the Handel works came from the first half of that century and the composer is termed Baroque, while the Haydn came from the second half, considered classical, but there was no hard and fast break between the two. The Haydn work was somewhat longer than the Handel, edging closer to the later development of the genre.
Playing with harpsichordist Schenkman in both Handel concertos in F and B-flat and the Haydn in F was a string quartet, and these musical forces would have been of the right size to perform in an 18th-century salon. Ingrid Matthews and Laurel Wells, Baroque violin; Jason Fisher, Baroque viola; and Nathan Whittaker, Baroque cello, are steeped in early music performance and played with grace and style.
The music, which also included Handel’s Violin Sonata in A Major and Haydn’s Trio in C Major, was, as Schenkman said, about joy and being together to enjoy it, a valid description of this lighthearted and charming music.
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A superb harpsichordist, Schenkman played on an instrument modeled on Italian ones of that period. The harpsichord’s expressiveness is conveyed by tempos and numbers of notes as well as ornamentation, at which Schenkman is a master. The rolls of notes up and down the instrument, his idiomatic ornamentation as well as the hesitations in slower portions brought eloquence to the performance as well as a very occasional missed note.
Unfortunately there were some balance problems. Mid-stage, the harpsichord sounded quiet, with the strings in front and nearer the audience. When all the strings were playing as well as the keyboard, it couldn’t be easily heard over them. Luckily there are in these pieces many solo passages for the soloist so Schenkman could be heard then.
The same difficulty occurred when he played with cello continuo for the violin sonata. Whittaker’s cello stood out a degree louder than the other strings throughout the concert, and when he played continuo one could not hear the harpsichord. Likewise the viola was often almost inaudible for the same reason.
Nordstrom works well as a venue for early music in that this is not music where the instruments are expected to blend. Rather, the listener should be able to hear each strand — and one can. However, perhaps if the harpsichord had been placed closer to the front of the stage and the strings grouped around him rather than in front, the balance might have improved.
These are not pieces we hear often played as they were performed here and it was a pleasure, nevertheless, to hear these skilled, knowledgeable and musical players.
There are four more concerts in this series this season.