in: Reviews

January 3, 2012

Profound, Entertaining, Impeccable Boston Baroque

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Boston Baroque, led by Martin Pearlman, has by now a firmly established tradition of playing an especially delightful program, mixing the profound and the entertaining, on New Year’s Eve and again on New Year’s Day at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. This year’s program, broadcast live on WGBH-FM on New Year’s Day with announcer Cathy Fuller, consisted almost entirely of various types of concerti, two of which were played on unusual instruments.

Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C Major, Op. 6, No. 10, opened the program with impeccable Baroque style, the Preludio notable for the seamless blending of concertino (the solo group) with the ripieno (the accompanying ensemble). Corelli’s counterpoint is not of the same order as Bach’s; one occasionally pitied the lower strings (including second violins) whose parts were perceptibly less interesting than that of the first violins. Still, all the players seemed to enjoy the music, giving the Allemanda a hearty schwung. The Corrente movement surprisingly started with a slow, more harmonically adventuresome introduction before launching into the vivace. The rhythm was also more varied here than before: regular hemiolas made their full effect, thanks to Boston Baroque’s immaculate ensemble. The following Allegro was rendered with vigor and ebullience; a number of phrases were reminiscent of the composer’s famous Christmas Concerto. The concluding Minuetto was brisk (marked vivace) without sacrificing its courtly elegance.

The Harp Concerto in B Flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6, of George Frideric Handel may be very much in the standard repertoire, but here Barbara Poeschl-Edrich played it on a (nowadays) quite unfamiliar instrument: the triple harp. Unlike the modern harp, this instrument has no pedals; instead, there are three sets of strings, the outer two corresponding to the piano’s white keys (diatonic), the inner to the black keys (accidentals). Given that the double-action mechanism found in today’s pedal harp wasn’t invented until the early nineteenth century, the triple harp is the instrument for which Handel wrote. The three ranks of strings are in such proximity that from even a fairly close distance the instrument appears virtually the same as a modern harp. This necessitates very precise fingerwork from the harpist, a difficulty that no doubt spurred the instrument’s later evolution. The triple harp is also more delicate in tone than its successor, but Poeschl-Edrich managed to produce a range of nuance even with its limited dynamic range. Pearlman and the orchestra were ever sensitive to this and created an intimacy more akin to chamber music than to a stereotypical concerto. The lamenting slow movement was especially moving, with extended, expressive harp solos.

In the next piece, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (BWV 1043), the soloists were taken from within Boston Baroque: the principal first and second violins, Christina Day Martinson and Julie Leven, respectively. This delicious work gives us a stimulating dialogue between the two soloists as well as between the first and second violin sections which were, of course, positioned facing each other. The sense of a pair who can “finish each other’s sentences” was ever present in the animated first movement. The cozy warmth of the slow movement had the same exchange, though occasionally the “wrong” solo voice would emerge somewhat over the actual melody, perhaps from the subconscious instinct that the upper voice will always have the main tune. It ain’t necessarily so — particularly in Bach. Nonetheless, the beautiful playing evoked a fine vocal duet with sensitive accompaniment. The agitated final movement gave the soloists somewhat more opportunity for technical display as well as a delightful passage in which the soloists actually accompany the orchestra. As a demonstration of collegial music-making, this performance would be hard to top.

After an intermission which supplied Champagne to toast the new year, the second half consisted of two pieces of Antonio Vivaldi which decidedly don’t fit the widespread conception of the composer as almost entirely a string composer. Our radio host, Cathy Fuller, had an illuminating preliminary conversation with Martin Pearlman about Vivaldi’s position as music teacher at a Venetian girls’ orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, in which he developed formidable musical skills in a number of the orphans. These soloists, being young girls, had to perform behind screens, as it was thought improper for audiences to see them. The first piece, Concerto in A Minor for Sopranino Recorder (RV 445), was composed for one of these talented students. The soloist here was Aldo Abreu (who had previously lent a lovely recorder color to the orchestra accompanying Barbara Poeschl-Edrich in the Handel concerto). The sopranino recorder — like the piccolo — sounds an octave higher than its soprano counterpart. It is certainly a challenge to compose “serious” music for such a high-pitched instrument (one thinks immediately of the chuckle produced by Papageno’s pipes), but Vivaldi has left us a very fine work brought to life wonderfully by Abreu. On this diminutive instrument, I’m tempted to describe Abreu’s work as “prestidigitation,” but there was no legerdemain possible here: as with the triple harp, the fingerwork had to be, and was, extremely precise. There seemed to be no type of virtuosity neglected by Vivaldi, including a stupendous passage that seemed to demand circular breathing, though Abreu stated it was done all on one immense breath. The slow movement, by contrast, allowed the expressive gifts of the player to be heard, including vibrato and dynamic nuance. I was most grateful for a rare opportunity to hear this unusual work, particularly in such a brilliant performance.

The official program closed with Vivaldi’s motet for solo soprano, Nulla in mundo pax sincera (There is no genuine peace in the world) with an anonymous religious text. The singer was Mary Wilson, a lyric coloratura with a very attractive balance of clear tone and warmth. The first aria’s gist is that the world is full of torment and only in Jesus is there sweet contentment, but Vivaldi’s music focuses on the latter idea with its happy siciliano rhythm. The return of the A section brought some lovely ornamentation from Wilson, the most florid melisma coming appropriately on “Jesu.” The recitative that followed urges the listener to flee the deceitful smiler. Wilson produced an exceptional burst of coloratura on “fugiamus” (“let us flee”); we were also treated to some fine, creative continuo playing from harpsichordist Peter Sykes. The second aria warns of a venomous snake concealed in beautiful blossoms, but a man maddened by love (the carnal type, no doubt) will often lick the poison as if it were honey. Wilson sang this with an ironic smile and enjoyed the greater opportunity for technical display. The motet concludes with an Alleluia movement that rivals, if not surpasses, Mozart’s version for coloratura fireworks. Wilson tossed it off with panache and joie de vivre.

An encore was a foregone conclusion, but the choice was wonderfully bizarre: the — no doubt — premier performance on period instruments of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide but an appropriate choice, nonetheless, for a WGBH broadcast, since this was once the theme music for WGBH-TV’s Evening at Pops. The song, of course, is the ultimate diva piece, with its manic-depressive mood swings and still more coloratura fireworks. Wilson had a ball with it, getting a big laugh by changing “Here I am in Paris, France” to “… Cambridge, Mass,” and again sailing through the spectacular vocal part without a hint of effort.

If this New Year’s Day broadcast becomes an annual event like the Boston Baroque concert already is, we may very soon have a celebration here in “our fair city” to rival Vienna’s apotheosis of the waltz.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church

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