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Verve and Virtuoso Style from Boston Baroque


Boston Baroque ushered in the New Year in virtuoso style with a concert of Baroque concertos heard in Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, on New Year’s Eve, 2011, and repeated the following afternoon. This review is of the New Year’s Eve performance, of Corelli, Handel, Bach, and after the intermission, two spectacularly virtuosic works by Vivaldi with soloists Aldo Abreu and Mary Wilson.

The program opened with Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C Major, op. 6, no. 10. Published in Amsterdam a year after the composer’s death in 1713, and much admired for their melodic clarity and tonal consistency. The twelve concertos of Opus 6 remained current well into the 19th century. According to conductor Martin Pearlman, who supplied introductory remarks in lieu of program notes, the concertos were so popular in England that on one occasion all 12 were performed at a single sitting and, thanks to overwhelming audience response, repeated on the spot. For this performance, Boston Baroque’s band consisted of 15 accomplished string players (no less than 13 of them women), with harpsichordist Peter Sykes providing continuo support. The three principals, violinists Christina Day Martinson and Julie Leven, violinists, and Sarah Freiberg, cellist, served as concertinists in the “solo” sections, providing dynamic contrast to the full complement of ripieno players. Pearlman conducted with characteristic verve and stylistic sensitivity. He took the opening Andante in a sprightly walking tempo and the Allemanda in a faster duple time, and brought out inherent rhythmic subtleties in the triple-time Corrente and Menuetto.

Published (in 1738) as one of six organ concertos, Opus 4, Handel’s Harp Concerto in B-flat Major was originally composed as an interlude for his setting, first performed in February, 1736, of Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music. The concerto represents metaphorically the scene in which the musician Timotheus, Orpheus-like, plays his lyre for Alexander the Great at a banquet, arousing various moods in the ruler and finally succeeding in inciting him to burn the city of Persepolis in revenge for his dead Greek soldiers. Moderns harps have pedals that can quickly retune certain strings in order to produce chromatic notes. The “triple harp” of Handel’s time has three rows of strings, the two outer rows for the notes of the diatonic scale, with the inner third row providing chromatic pitches. Often sounding alone, the harp was played by soloist Barbara Poeschl-Edrich with beautiful clarity of articulation and phrasing. In order not to overwhelm its delicate sound, Handel’s accompaniment often called for pizzicato in the lower strings, with bowing only in the violins. The Larghetto second movement evoked the mood of a pastoral lament from one of Handel’s operas, its melody doubled in thirds and punctuated by tutti chords from the orchestra, while the vigorous Allegro Finale was presumably intended to depict Alexander’s more warlike frame of mind.

In the Bach Double Concerto in D Minor, concertmaster Christina Day Martinson was joined by Julie Leven, principal second violin. Both are accomplished players, but Martinson’s playing was more forward and soloistically projected, while Leven tended to remain in the background. One missed the sense of friendly rivalry — each soloist striving to outdo the other — essential to the character of this piece. The second movement, with its sinuously intertwining melodies, brought out the best in both soloists, while the Finale was a shade too fast. The melodies hurtled over one another, obscuring details of articulation in the process.

After the intermission we were entertained by two spectacularly virtuosic works by Vivaldi. Aldo Abreu was the soloist in the Concerto in A Minor for sopranino recorder and orchestra, one of the many works composed for the talented girls of the famous Ospedale di Pietà orphanage in Venice, where Vivaldi taught for many years. Abreu showed himself to be a master of this tiny instrument, which sounds an octave higher than written — more or less in the range of a modern piccolo. His adroit phrasing and skillful ornamentation were nothing short of amazing in fast passage work, while superb breath control allowed him to sustain extended melodic arabesques in the aria-like Larghetto. The Finale, working up to a climactic crescendo at breathtaking speed, brought down the house.

Mary Wilson was the soloist in Vivaldi’s motet Nulla n mundo pax sincera, really a cantata consisting of two da capo arias in contrasting meter framing a recitative, the whole rounded off by a concluding Alleluia. In his introductory remarks, Pearlman speculated that this piece might have been composed for a talented alumna of the Pietà conservatory. Wilson’s light, clear voice and surefire technique were more than a match for the motet, which rivals a violin concerto in its virtuosic demands. Beginning the opening aria, with its lilting siciliano rhythms, in fairly restrained tones, her voice took on more warmth and a deeper resonance in the da capo repetition, thanks to expressive ornamentation and a judicious addition of vibrato. Arioso-like flights of melisma brought the recitative to an emotional peak, while the summit of virtuosity was reached in the final aria in fast duple time and the breathtaking roulades of the Alleluia.

This being New Year’s Eve, Wilson and Pearlman presented us with a surprise encore: the “first and only” performance by a Baroque ensemble of the set piece “Glitter and Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. An experienced opera singer and comedienne, Wilson played this brilliant piece, itself a witty pastiche of operatic cliches, to the hilt in a rousing finale to a wonderful evening.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.


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