This week the Boston Symphony Orchestra is reclaiming a baroque repertory that many orchestras have ceded to specialist groups that play early instruments.
For this program, the BSO engaged musicians who have achieved success on both sides of the great divide created by the early-music movement, conductor Ton Koopman and cellist Pieter Wispelwey.
It was particularly interesting to hear Koopman lead J. S. Bach's First Orchestra Suite in the aftermath of his class about how to conduct it Monday night at Harvard. The conductor practices what he preaches, and the performance displayed all the dancing liveliness of rhythm, clarity of texture, variety and contrast he had talked about. What it did not have was much flexibility or spontaneous-sounding ornamentation, and the sound was a little thick -- it went around the hairpin turns, but like a superbly engineered Mack truck.
At Harvard, Koopman, a superb keyboard player, took charge of the harpsichord a couple of times and generated an entirely different specific energy. Conducting in Symphony Hall, he was not in a position to do that; harpsichordist Mark Kroll is an experienced player, but his instrument was mostly inaudible. The hard-working reed team included oboists Keisuke Wakao and Mark McEwen and bassoonist Richard Ranti.
Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote his A-Major Concerto for harpsichord. Twenty years later he arranged alternate versions for flute and for cello. Taking his cue from another C. P. E. Bach cello concerto transcribed from a harpsichord piece, Wispelwey chose to play this one an octave higher than written in order to project better over the orchestra. That he did, but he was not able to conceal the effort behind the brilliant effect he made in the outer movements. In the beautiful slow movement, however, the cellist moved easily between the "speaking" and "singing" aspects of his instrument's personality, playing with the directness and eloquence that have always characterized his best work.
After intermission Koopman led a stirring performance of Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony, a work that incorporates Martin Luther's chorale "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
This boasted all the fire and flexibility anyone could want, and the violins caressed their cherishable melody in the slow movement. Flutist Fenwick Smith sounded forth the Luther theme with shining confidence, and the bass line was reinforced by the tangy timbre of the serpent, a brass instrument twisted like a snake that is usually described as archaic. BSO bass trombonist Douglas Yeo loves the serpent and has determined to rescue it from obsolescence, and he's right: Nothing else sounds quite like it.