in: Reviews

February 7, 2010

Sarasa Lavishes Elegant, Loving Detail on Baroque Standards

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Members of the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble, founded following an outreach concert at Sing Sing in 1997, bring conviction to their roles as entertainers and festive bringers-to-life of repertoire of all periods. It is not uncommon for members of the audience to considerably rethink how they rank the music they have just heard the group perform in fresh, no-holds-barred ways.

The second of a pair of concerts Sarasa gave on the last weekend in January wrapped a comfortably familiar Bach cembalo concerto in La Primavera and L’Estate, the usual first two of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, then spun L’Autunno and L’Inverno around a little tour-de-force by Telemann, a late-Baroque concerted miniature without continuo. The Parish Hall in Concord’s First Parish Church is intimate and flatteringly resonant, since all surfaces are of hard plaster or firmly supported wood. There was not a deadening carpet to be seen. Adding the audience tunes the reverberance of the empty space to manageable proportions, and there does not appear to be a bad seat in the room. The one distraction is the powerful rumble and growl of a big heating system right under the Parish Hall. A familiar New England state of things, to be sure, but a dreadful underpinning for music. Still, one could hear, and hear pleasantly.

Christopher Greenleaf photo

Christopher Greenleaf photo

Basso continuo is the foundation and living pulse of what we now call Baroque music. Modern players who have made the olden style their own embrace playing Bc, and playing comfortably atop Bc, with a fervent delight that banishes popular mid-20th-century deprecations of the Baroque as simple-minded stuff. Even when it is self-effacing, skilled, committed continuo playing is responsible for much of our enduring fascination with this music. Sarasa’s founder, cellist Timothy Merton, and harpsichordist, Charles Sherman established detailed, rhythmically impeccable, and harmonically adventurous bedrock or occasional interweaving filigree above which the mercurial upper strings soared.

Elizabeth Blumenstock, as her big public across the time zones knows, is a good deal more than just a very fine fiddler. She provided, in no uncertain terms, the verbal clock spring for the spring-fresh recasting of the music heard that Sunday evening in Concord. Her commentary held out an inviting hand to an audience whose interest and engagement mounted as the program progressed. If you can comfortably combine comedic zaps with informed stylistic commentary, why ever not do so?! As each composition was about to be played, Sarasa’s spokesmensch (forgive me, Ms. Blumenstock) tallied important thematic and coloristic events with her own instrument or nodded to colleagues to provide a brief snippet, her eyes merrily snapping back and forth between listeners and fellow players. She has the ability to sum up ephemeral things in earthy or picturesque terms that, when said, sound just right, and her words paint complete pictures.

Sarasa’s major programming innovation was to use the Quattro Stagioni as glorious, polychrome bookends of decided individuality and charm encasing one contrasting work on each half of the show. Heard alone, each Season takes on a surprising new life. When we encounter them as a suite of four packets of quick-slow-quick vignettes, they usually astound. But to hear them separately is to experience and savor them to an extent that places the skill and polish of the players, I must say, firmly at the focal point of things. No room for glossings over or for slip-ups here. The Red Priest’s sheer audacity and wholly radical departure from standard late-17th-c. writing for solo or concerted forces, as roughly codified by Corelli and resoundingly canonized the length of the Italian boot, would have brought about a trial and a brisk public burning, had he undertaken revolutionary steps of this sort in theology, democratic politics, or astronomy. What confronts us in these wild and gleefully colorful concerti is a wild departure from convention. It is a new definition of the possible.

This unbridled leap into unflown, spacious skies is what we experienced with the ensemble as they genuinely reinvented le Quattro Stagioni. This was not newness for the sake of the change, but a finely thought-through sharing of the dramatic strands of these amazing scores among first-rank professionals, fleet-footed collaborators in reinvention. The two busy Signore of the Bc chipped in with quick, un-continuo commentaries when the very precise scoring left room for them. The allegro tempi were quick without frenzy. Largos and lentos didn’t suffer from the langour or self-consciousness that so often cloy them or wrap them in Romantic cloth. Rapid, angular passages, smoothly sewn among the many charming lyrical moments, clad each movement in bright-hued silks. Carnival of Venice, in January?! This was beautiful playing and an invigorating reassessment of very familiar scores.

Bach’s Cembalo Concerto in E, BWV 1053 (1733-46) is among his lengthiest statements in the genre, which poses not inconsiderable challenges of variety and phrase-shaping. Charles Sherman, playing his own exquisite John Phillips double, pursued the intricate melodic line in each of the three expansive movements, threading supple harmonic commentaries around the main thrust and playing wonderfully with or against the string ensemble scoring. Harpsichords that sustain well across throughout their range, top to bottom, are uncommon. The Flemish original on which this instrument is based (Andreas Ruckers, 1646) underwent enlargement (called a petit or a grand ravalement) by Blanchet (1756) and a final reworking, very late in harpsichord terms, by brilliant Pascal Taskin (1780). Charles Sherman’s modern instrument displays an expert, ear-opening implementation of what the old craftsmen did at their considerable best. The effect of this in the Bach was to bring the sometimes apologetic texture of the harpsichord to a volume level and sustaining power that genuinely did justice to the score. Let’s not forget the superb string playing, which alternated between full-out orchestral sonics and wispy threads of part playing that accorded the cembalo its important, but still always collaborative role in this bracing, sumptuous piece.

The penultimate work was a jewel. In his awesome bursts of creativity through some six decades, Georg Phillip Telemann often revisited unusual forms and Besetzungen, the instrumental forces for which he scored. This was the case when he dashed off four little concerti for four solo violins senza basso continuo. Elizabeth Blumenstock quipped that, just as the band had gotten down to rehearsing one of them in C, the notion began to dawn among the four of them that, really, the Four-Violin Concerto in D, TWV 40:202 (not reliably dated) was the winner. She and her three coconspirators once more teased the crowd with melodic amuse-gueules to introduce the piece. Violist Jenny Stirling quietly returned to the stage front with her violin and a smile, to amusement all around, and they tore into the concerto. The four violins handed off will-o’-the-wisp (thanks to EB for this characterization) fragments of melody and harmony in the two quick movements, sharing breathtakingly subtle transitions between instruments in the slow pair. How clearly one heard the nearly unplayed bass line! The Concord audience couldn’t have applauded more heartily.

Christopher Greenleaf is a veteran recording engineer who collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

1 Comment

  1. The harpsichordist with Sarasa was Charles Sherman.

    Comment by Julian Bullitt — February 8, 2010 at 8:54 am

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