Orchestra of St. Luke’s Plays Bach and Mendelssohn

Thursday, October 17, 2009 8pm. Carnegie Hall, NY

Bach and Mendelssohn always go well together, the one having been a major influence on the other, and so it proved Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, when the Orchestra of St. Luke’s presented two Bach keyboard concertos framed by two of Mendelssohn’s most popular orchestral works, The Hebrides Overture, and the “Scottish” Symphony. Interestingly, conductor Bernard Labadie, a baroque music specialist, was more persuasive in the later music than in the earlier.

For the two concertos, the epic BWV 1052 in D Minor, and the less substantial F Minor, BWV 1056, Beatrice Rana took center stage as soloist. The D Minor concerto is not just one of Bach’s greatest orchestral works, it is a singularly turbulent, even grim piece, but little of its emotional expressiveness was in evidence thanks to tempos in the outer movements so quick as allow the music to flit by in a blur. The F Minor concerto went much better, both on account of its more colorful accompaniment (the occasional string pizzicatos) and more highly contrasted range of speeds and articulation. Rana certainly has all the notes in her fingers, and she did her best to exploit the piano’s ability to shade the music with dynamic nuances and sing in the slow movements, but there’s more here in the quick music than mere virtuoso pattern making.

In the two Mendelssohn works, however, Labadie was more convincing. The Hebrides is mostly a quiet piece with just a few loud outbursts, and Labadie did an excellent job suggesting the power held in reserve, with careful attention given to the soft writing for trumpets and horns. The “Scottish” Symphony, with all four movements played without a break as Mendelssohn directed, received a swift, exciting reading, very well played by the St. Luke’s strings and winds. It wasn’t a perfect evening overall, but in an era full of “concept” programming it was good to see purely musical considerations placed front and center for a change.

David Hurwitz