This past Saturday evening, at the Cambridge Society of Friends, the perennially enterprising Sarasa Ensemble teamed up with Les Sirènes, a vocal duo, to afford a modest, appreciative audience a vivid look at “Roman Handel” — quite the popular theme of late — and at the enduring Italian light illuminating the composer’s later London œuvre.
Halfway into the first, fresh decade of the eighteenth century, young Handel, newly arrived in Rome, speedily garnered esteem of a sort the cultured natives rarely conferred on their own, let alone on a 20-year-old just down from the central German duchies. In the opulent city of Cardinal Pamphili, arts patron extraordinaire, and of the comet-like, masterful figure of Corelli, a youthful and tireless composer blessed with such extraordinary gifts could go far indeed.
Sarasa and Les Sirènes did full honor to Italianate Handel, the glorious, unifying thread. In each half, vocal chamber works for one or two sopranos, with two violins and continuo (cello and harpsichord) or continuo alone, flanked a sonata for two violins and continuo. We heard brilliant cantatas and opera excerpts from 1707-09 (Roma bellissima), 1711 (momentary Hanover), and 1735-41 (London), contrasted to great effect with one overtly Corellian, overtly Italianate, two-violin sonata, published in London in 1730, and another such, dancing structurally Italian steps draped in the Parisian hues of the day that was published in London nine years later.
Quel bel labbro, drawn from the early opera, Berenice, regina d’Egitto, HWV 38, opened the concert. Soprano roles of the era having been so gratifyingly parceled out among female and male singers of this same range, quipped soprano Kathryn Mueller — one half of Les Sirènes — that she and colleague Kristen Watson could legitimately tackle a love duet together, an uncommon pleasure. Their exquisitely matched style and phrasing, commented upon and supported by Sarasa’s supple instrumental tutti, commanded our undivided attention.
The conventional slow-fast-slow-fast movements of the Sonata in g, Op. 2, No. 2, HWV 387, brought out every device of the Italian continuo sonata, with superbly worked out, yet truly fresh-sounding ornamentation by the two violinists. In the initial Andante, the second, lower fiddle part led, an enjoyable reversal of form. Adriane Post and Beth Wenstrom shone with polish, magical tonal variety, and fleet cascades of perfectly placed notes. This “old-style” Corellian sonata, despite its nascent Handelian plumage in places, showcased Sarasa’s ability to transform the work’s prosaically straightforward continuo task into multi-hued tonal tapestry. Here commanding, there commenting, always flexibly imparting the harmonic roadmap, the continuo abounded in wonderful small dodgings-out-of-the-way to allow the violin parts to waft, unchallenged, through the night air.
A trio of diverse vocal chamber pieces concluded the first half. The latest composed work of the concert, Non di voi non vo fidarmi, Cantata XVI, HWV 189 (London, 1741), was contemporary with the composing of The Messiah. Singers and players put this cantata’s partly familiar sections across briskly and with bright relish. A September opportunity to anticipate familiar nativity duets! This work and the next recalled the easily forgotten lesson that Handel is never to be underestimated as a crafter of gorgeous, touching phrases. We may be familiar with a given aria, as in Tornami a vagheggiar, from Alcina, yet it is possible that our minds may reference (way) back to, for example, Joan Sutherland, rather than to the quicksilver and lightly textured ether of contemporary early music practice. As Kathryn Mueller, who sang Tornami, noted, Dame Joan was hardly an admirer of authentic performance. This circumstance may have planted our first impressions of this touching aria in a more sober, less polychromatic landscape. Saturday’s joyous and unaffectedly direct performance appropriately presented it as a fey creature, verging on fragile, thriving in its ensemble language rather than as a solo with deferential accompaniment. Miss Mueller and her four colleagues succeeded through simplicity and shared attention to small moments of collaborative phrasing and dynamics. Mio bel’ tesoro, the third piece of the group, from Giustino, was another of those ripping, quick tutti duets that so delighted London’s fickle audiences, at least until Italian opera and its proponents lost favor. Saturday’s appreciative listeners applauded this vocal threesome and the glowing musicians with warmth.
As the second half kicked off, Cantata V, HWV 199, Va speme infida, showed two disdainful furies in top form sweeping all before them. Familiar solos and virtuosic duets are engaging, but the combined force and decibels of two wrathful sopranos, here pelting rapidly along in common cause and not spitting venom at one another, does get one’s attention. Sarasa tore through the busy bars and systems alongside Les Sirènes, producing a fine roar of sound, always refined and expressive even at a high rate of knots. The corruscating final section of the cantata provided a fine contrast with the evening’s other instrumental work, the [Trio] Sonata in G, Op. 5, No. 4, HWV 399. Corelli was little in evidence here, though shades of color and the spirit of the composer’s beloved Boot pervade the five movements. While the continuo of the earlier sonata strode almost stolidly along, a mere bass underpinning, the “Bc” has become less tethered here. Especially in the three quite contrasting sections of the third movement (A tempo ordinario – Allegro, non presto – Adagio), the Sarasa cello and cembalo — played with incomparable sensitivity and sureness by Timothy Merton and Charles Sherman — elevated the free, sometimes ebullient low voice to suggest a lithe, conversational counter-message to the violins’ untrammeled brilliance above. The following Passacaille, certainly as Sarasa elected to launch it forth, exuded such a cheerful French quality that, for once, we sniffed in vain for southern garlic. The breathing suppleness Sarasa brought to each of the five movements, with unaffected and graciously executed ornamentation throughout, made this sonata one of the program’s highlights.
Lascia la spina, from Berenice, regina d’Egitto, HWV 38 offered Kristen Watson the opportunity to create surging waves of powerful, straightforward passion, the familiar melody rocking atop gentle triple-meter string support. In such a calm and pause-filled soundscape, a sense of quiet motion washed through even the constant small silences. It was not difficult to conjure up the novel notion of a tranquil Roman night, two centuries before nocturnal stillness succumbed to Vespas and buses
The last work of the evening proclaimed that “constancy is a strong shield, and so is the valour of fidelity” with good licks for all the performers. As the vocal portions of the concert flowed past, Kathryn Mueller and Kristen Watson exchanged glances and smiles as they approached passages for which timing was important. An almost theatrical toss of hair and radiant grins launched them into an extremely beautifully done joint trill, one of those lovely accelerando rampings-up of energy that brought a surge of applause as the duet ended. This was a beautifully sung and played evening, further demonstration of Sarasa’s ongoing ability to do what they do very, very well.
The Friends Meeting House is a pleasurable place to drink in an evening of chamber music. Its gratifyingly neutral acoustic is supportive, with but little congestion in high vocal fortes. Nuance, dynamic expressivity, and tonal beauty come through clearly. The excellent imported halogen lamps did wonders for the otherwise under-lit room, and the ensemble’s usual exhaustive program booklet gave those so inclined plenty to read before the music began. The tail of the fine double-manual John Phillips harpsichord was angled boldly downstage, with the welcome result that even those in the left-hand seats could appreciate its reticent, refined continuo presence. This seemingly small detail is often overlooked, so it’s worth mentioning here.
Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. His principal work is recording surviving historic instruments and their successful copies in supportive, affectively engaging acoustics.