in: Reviews

October 24, 2010

Handel in Rome via Old Post Road

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As is usually the case, the Musicians of the Old Post Road, performing on period instruments under the co-direction of Suzanne Stumpf and Daniel Ryan, get an “A” in imaginative programming, and certainly on this occasion, for performance as well. We heard them in the First Parish, Sudbury, on Friday, October 22; it was repeated Saturday at Emmanuel Church in Boston.

Our knowledge of Handel’s early years in Rome beginning in December, 1706 is a bit murky, but treated gracefully in the excellent (anonymous) program notes. Handel was welcomed into the palaces of Cardinals Carlo Colonna and Benedetto Pamphili, and the Marquess (later Prince) Francesco Maria Ruspoli, whose household Handel joined in 1707. This concert aimed to present music by Handel and other composers working in Rome at that time (rather loosely defined) under the patronage of these figures. By coincidence there recently was a symposium at Boston College on Pamphili family patronage and the arts.

The opening Concerto in D minor, though attributed to Handel in the Bavarian library where the manuscript survives and so published in 1935, is probably not by him (nor by Telemann, to whom it has also been ascribed). Nevertheless it is a charming work in four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) for traverso, violin, violoncello, and harpsichord. (“Traverso” is a modern term used to distinguish a wooden flute played in the same position as the current orchestral instrument. In music of earlier periods, “flauto” always meant a wooden recorder, blown directly into the mouthpiece at the top.) These instruments were stylishly played throughout the concert by (respectively) Suzanne Stumpf, Sarah Darling, Daniel Ryan, and Michael Bahmann, comprising the core group of the ensemble. They are all accomplished players who are fluent in matters of Baroque style without overdoing it. Bahmann’s mostly improvised harpsichord continuo was a model of its kind throughout.

The concert achieved programmatic contrast by alternating purely instrumental works with solo cantatas and arias sung by lyric soprano Kristen Watson, whose rich, supple voice roamed over a wide range with ease, clear diction, strong but flexible projection and a vibrato used only for occasional subtle emphasis. Her ornamentation of repeated passages was well chosen and always apt for the text as well as the music. Watson had participated as a soloist in two of the sessions during the symposium mentioned above, which must have contributed to her fine performance here.

The cantata Fuori del sua capanna, for soprano, traverso, and continuo (i.e., violoncello and harpsichord), has similarly been attributed in various extant manuscripts to Giovanni Buononcini (1670-1747), Jakob Greber (1691-1731), and Nicola Fago (1677-1745). The program notes chose Buononcini without mentioning the others, noting that he had been a cellist in Pamphili’s orchestra — but that was a decade earlier; by this time he had moved on to Vienna. Such matters aside, the cantata was a perfect choice to match the rich sounds of Stumpf’s traverso and Watson’s voice as they played off each other with great beauty. The two verses, each preceded by recitatives, speak of unrequited love in a pastoral setting frequented by a nightingale (the traverso), thus setting the stage for these ravishing duets.

The violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli came under the patronage of Cardinal Pamphili in 1676. His first set of Trio Sonatas (op. 2), dedicated to the Cardinal, was published in 1685. (The texture of a trio sonata is always two high instruments and basso continuo.) Violinist Jesse Irons joined the other instrumentalists for a performance of the fifth from this group, in B-flat major. After the first “Preludio”(Adagio), the other three dance movements were played vivaciously but still retained the stately character of their models. The performances by Irons and Darling were absolutely amazing, with playfulness and complete unity of sound in spite of presenting two different parts. Both of them play in the relatively new group A Far Cry, the conductorless chamber orchestra currently in residence at the Gardner Museum, of which Irons is a co-founder. Perhaps this experience partially contributed to their unbelievably fine performance and sensitivity to each other. Daniel Ryan, whose cello had unfortunately been a little too loud until this Sarabande, began then to temper his sound more effectively for the rest of the evening with gratifying results.

As Ryan announced before the next work, the original called for a violone rather than a cello, and thus a real melodic part instead of a simple continuo line. He certainly rose to the occasion in the sweet melodic interludes for violone between verses, and then appropriately fell back to the bass line of the continuo part during the verses. (The score does have a bass line under the interludes fulfilled here by the improvising harpsichord.) The work was a solo cantata, by Giovanni Lulier (c.1662-1700), also known among Cardinal Pamphili’s musicians (1681-1690) as “Giovannino del Violone” because of his skill with the instrument. Amor di che tu vuoi, surviving in a manuscript in the Santini Collection in Munster, has never been published, but the process of creating a digital score from which the group could perform is nicely documented here, including sample images of both the manuscript and the score. This is a fine example by the Post Roadies of what can be done with performers’ Websites, usually merely drowning in names of performance venues. Once again, Watson sang with the passionate yet restrained ardor suggested by both text and music.

After intermission we finally heard two vocal works by Handel for sure, surrounding a flute concerto by Francesco Gasparini (1661-1727), known to be a participant in Pamphili’s concerts around 1687. In A minor, it is scored for traverso, two violins, and continuo. Once again Darling and Irons were beguiling, especially in the “Siciliana” movement played with straight-faced pizzicato, holding their violins against their middles like banjos. Stumpf as soloist ornamented the da capo sections with great aplomb.

The first of the Handel works was the plaintive “Lascia la spina,” from his allegorical oratorio with a libretto by Pamphili, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707). Short as it is (a poem of only eight brief lines), this was perhaps the high point of the concert — if one had to choose. His setting of “Lascia” fairly flows off the tongue, as does “la spina,” (leave the thorn), and again the second line, “Cogli la rosa” (Pluck the rose), a simple couplet. Watson’s splendid voice and diction gave the words just the right emphasis, beautifully taken up by the strings’ bowing, the traverso gently reinforcing in a manner that made the ensemble just perfect. The final cantata, Tu fedel? Tu costante?,  composed in 1707 when Handel had just moved into the service of the Marquess Ruspoli, is quite long, comprising four sets of recitatives and arias as the singer contemplates jilting her fickle lover. Scored for soprano, two violins and continuo, it became an emotional tour de force as Watson maintained the steadily increasing drama of the arias until the final decision was reached, and once again provided an opportunity for the amazing violin duo (Darling and Irons) to shine. A standing ovation ensued.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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