Two months after the death of its founder, Christopher Hogwood, the Academy of Ancient Music has landed in New York as part of a U.S. tour. Since 2006, Richard Egarr has led the ensemble from the harpsichord and continues Hogwood’s tradition of playing early music on period instruments. The current touring program of J.S. Bach’s four orchestral suites complements a recording of the same. Friday evening’s disconcerting concert at Carnegie Hall left me longing for the bygone days of Hogwood and fearful for the groups’s future.

Academy of Ancient Music © Patrick Harrison
Academy of Ancient Music
© Patrick Harrison

Since the Academy was founded over 40 years ago, it has pioneered the revival of Baroque and Classical music. In addition to extensive concertizing, the Academy has released over 300 CDs, a select handful of which continue to be the definitive recordings of some repertoire. But the recording studio is a vastly different space than the recording hall. 

The chief problem throughout the entire evening was balance. Though the audience could have guessed based upon the number of musicians on stage, Egarr explained that the Academy would be performing the suites one to a part. He claimed it was “one of the ways” that Bach would have played them. Though even Herr Kapellmeister probably would admit that playing this richly scored music “one to a part” in this size hall sounds a bit anemic, at best. Egarr’s ensemble consisted of two violins, one viola, one cello, one double, bass, one bassoon, three oboes, flute, three trumpets, timpani and himself on the harpsichord. Though on paper, the balance seems just fine, the reality is that three trumpets are way too resonant to pit against such a small string section, particularly when all of those double reeds are added to the mix.

Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major, which opened the program, didn't make for a strong start. Though I could see the violinists moving their bows, it was almost impossible to hear them for several movements, even with the trumpets playing at what was a low dynamic level given their potential. It was not until the penultimate movements – a pair of minuets – that the ensemble achieved a somewhat satisfactory balance and the strings sounded a bit more present and warm. One saving grace of the first suite was bassoonist Ursula Leveaux’s difficult solo in one of the two bourrées. There’s hardly a rest for her to breath at all, and she played with a seemingly endless stream of air.

Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor showed some improvement, largely because it is scored for a smaller ensemble and features the solo flute. Likely composed for Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, the virtuoso who brought the French school of flute playing to Saxony, the suite is a tour-de-force. Flutist Rachel Brown was gallantry personified, evoking intimate evenings with Quantz playing at Frederick the Great’s summer palace, Sanssouci. Though Brown looked like Meissen porcelain come to life, it was sadly still difficult to hear her at times. In the Overture, she could scarcely be heard at all. Perhaps the violins were grateful not to compete with the trumpets, and could not contain their excitement at a more gentle mezzoforte in order to allow their colleague, the soloist, to be heard? Knowing how soft and gentle the Baroque flute can be, the players should have been more sensitive to the overall balance and the acoustic of the space. Even when Brown was playing the virtuosic Double on the Polonaise, scored for flute and continuo alone, it was difficult to hear her. This is despite the fact that Egarr reduced the continuo to just harpsichord and cello.

The maestro must have given a stern “half time pep talk,” because the overall sound of the ensemble improved markedly in the second half of the program. The music finally danced during the pair of gavottes in Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major. In the pair of minuets in the same suite, the ensemble achieved a satisfactory dynamic balance given their current configuration and the space.

Dynamic issues aside, the band tended to lack the style and grace that other groups have. Given that their performance was one on a part, Egarr and his players had even more flexibility than is ordinarily afforded to baroque ensembles. But, their interpretive decisions were conservative, and ornaments were few. Today, the Academy sounds more “ancient” than it did in the 70s, but not in a good way.