On the second stop of their lightning swing through some of America’s top concert halls, from Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia to Carnegie Hall, violinist Isabelle Faust joined Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy to bring a dazzling package of mostly Bach with a swizzle of Handel to a small but enthusiastic crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It turned out to be rather surprisingly a surfeit of Bach – not because the performances were anything but deeply immersed in both knowledge and experience of HIP methodology but because the two solo violin concertos and the double concerto are so outwardly similar. 

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

You don’t notice it when you’re listening to all three on recordings because you sort of expect an elevator effect; presumably if the performers can make them sound like three really different pieces than it’s okay. But I can’t remember real differentiation happening much on recordings, and it didn’t happen Thursday night. In all of them the playing was sublime, the phrasing was both meticulously phrased and yet thrillingly free. Faust threw in ornaments, embellishments, and trills only when they could make their maximum effect, avoiding any sense of rigid, dogmatic, academic playing. Even in the vast confines of the hall she and the musicians projected such joy in their music-making that they received a series of standing ovations of explosive power; it was the concert’s only disappointment that at the end, despite the repeated efforts of the audience, Les Violons played no encores.

Before and between the three concertos, Labadie showed a lush Stokowskian touch in his own transcriptions of three Leipzig Chorales and his completion of Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue. While his conducting seemed to be monitoring clarity, the Violons gave these pieces a rich-sounding treatment that effectively contrasted with the more sober Bach. Handel provided the other interlude with his Concerto Grosso Op.6 no. 5, in which Labadie found the space or pace the composer needs to exert his very different magic.

In Charlottesville, since Faust had not been available, Labadie substituted Bach’s luscious Concerto for oboe d’amore in A major, BWV1055 for the E major Violin Concerto, and the rarely-heard and incomparable Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D Minor, BWV1060 for the A minor Violin Concerto, all with Violons soloists. If we had heard that program at Disney Hall it would have been less Faust but more Bach.

Of course less Faust is never a good thing. From the moment she skipped on stage, dressed in a chic modern take on a festive peasant costume, she was completely at one with the music – every bar, every phrase, every happy moment, every sad and lovely tune, and communicated all of this to the audience with her fiddle and her graceful, simple, charming body language.