Winsor winds make masterful work of Bach, Brahms

The Boston Globe, 9/10/97

by Catherine Peterson

LEXINGTON – Run your own concert series and you can program music you’ve just been aching to perform. Peggy Pearson, the acclaimed Boston-based oboist, gave herself this opportunity when she started the Winsor Music Chamber Series last year. Sunday afternoon, she took further steps, presenting a transcription of Bach’s Cantata BWV 170, “Vergnuegte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” that greatly expanded her role in the piece.

The oboist explained that she took these actions because of her love for Bach’s music and for the oboe d’amore, the version of the oboe Bach wrote for so eloquently. She confided to the audience that “as my friend [and Emmanuel Music colleague] Craig Smith has said of at least a hundred Bach pieces; to me this cantata has to be the most beautiful thing Bach ever. wrote.” I, for one, don’t want to have to make such a choice, but while listening to this moving performance, I wasn’t going to argue with her.

In “Vergnuegte Ruh,” one of Bach’s short solo cantatas, the composer included the oboe d’amore only in the first of the three arias. Pearson expanded her role by transcribing the organ part in the second aria (giving the right hand to the oboe d’amore and the left to the first violin) and doubling the violin line in the last aria. Pearson performed with all the refinement of tone, technical ease, and, above all, imagination one expects from her. For all the beauty of her performance, Pearson made sure that Bach’s music – not her virtuoso playing – took center stage.

She was aided by a wonderful soloist in Mary Westbrook-Geha. The mezzo-soprano poured out each aria in what emerged as one long seamless phrase. In the two recitatives, she sculpted lines fervently, giving heart to the text’s disillusionment with worldly existence and longing for ultimate peace with God. Her instrumental colleagues (Bayla Keyes and Sarah Roth, violin; Katherine Murdoch, viola; Rhonda Rider, cello; Joseph Higgans, bass; Michael Beattie, harpsichord; and Pearson) matched her with finely crafted playing that breathed as a single entity.

The concert featured another work with masterful woodwind writing, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. No doctoring is needed to make this a favorite of clarinetists, since the quintet is the gem of the four works written by Brahms at the end of his life under the inspiration of the masterful German virtuoso Richard Muelfeld.

Clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg, joined by Keyes, Roth, Murdoch, and Rider, sounded terrific in the opening movement She brought elegance and warmth to the long arching phrases and demonstrated a wonderful ability to meld her sound with the strings. However, the energy level then seemed to slip and the string playing didn’t have the reserve of passion that needs to simmer throughout this autumnal treasure.