Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based ensemble, put on a most effective show Friday night at a packed First Church in Cambridge. Directed by harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell, the ensemble of 13 strings and oboe was joined by soprano Amanda Forsythe in a program built around six arias from Handel’s Italian operas.
That the crowd came above all to honor Forsythe was clear from the thunderous applause that greeted her after introductory remarks by Harvard professor Tom Kelly, a former board member for Apollo’s Fire. But perhaps the most enthusiastic audience response followed the group’s frenetic performance of an arrangement of a work by Vivaldi, one of several instrumental compositions that alternated with the vocal selections.
The cheers for Forsythe were well deserved. She sounded as good as I have heard her, in selections that ranged from a wistful lament accompanied only by basso continuo to brilliant show stoppers joined by the full ensemble. Following period practice, each aria was graced by the type of unwritten embellishment that was one of the principal attractions of this music as originally performed. This led to fireworks far more spectacular than anything Handel ever wrote. Occasionally, as in “Geloso tormento” from his early opera Almira, the style of the embellishments struck me as later than that of the original music. But whether these decorations were justified either historically or by the dramatic circumstances of the original arias seemed almost irrelevant, given their nearly flawless execution and the panache with which they were presented. The same might be said of the histrionic manner in which the instrumental portions of the program, especially two arrangements by Sorrell, were played and conducted.
Indeed, Sorrell and her players were arguably more dramatic than Forsythe, who communicated with her admiring listeners chiefly through her extraordinary musicality. This made her restrained gestures (and costume changes that involved three stunning gowns) nearly superfluous. For the instrumentalists, however, the visual aspect was an essential part of the show, which included a sometimes stagey type of playing—and of conducting by Sorrell, who tended to leave the actual continuo playing to lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis. An exaggerated tossing about of hands and bows has always been effective for eliciting audience response, as performers from Paganini to Bernstein have recognized. Whether it detracts from the musical impact of a performance may be a matter of personal taste.
The high points of this one were certainly Forsythe’s arias. Today a soprano enjoys the luxury of being able to perform male as well as female roles from Baroque opera, which could make the Roman emperor Nero a soprano and Julius Caesar a mezzo. Forsythe sang only arias originally for female characters, including two for Cleopatra from Handel’s Julius Caesar. Most affecting might have been the quiet “Amarti sì vorrei” from Teseo, although for this listener the effect was compromised by an overly busy continuo accompaniment, with harpsichord and lute frequently getting in one another’s way. This is one of several selections in which Emperor Charles VI’s advice to the soprano Farinelli might apply equally to players and singers: “those never-ending notes and passages only surprise . . . if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.” Forsythe did nevertheless “reach the heart” in Cleopatra’s lament “Piangerò,” which was paired with the same character’s bravura aria “Da tempeste” to end the program. Here a listener might have been excused for simply basking in the literally over-the-top embellishments, which reached into Queen-of-the-Night realms of the vocal stratosphere.
Playing expressively alongside Forsythe in “Geloso tormento” was oboist Debra Nagy, who also performed a fine solo from the third of Handel’s so-called oboe concertos. I wish that we could have heard the whole piece, rather than an excerpt. But this was a program of excerpts and adaptations, pasted together to form the sort of quasi-dramatic sequence now fashionable. The three segments, described in the program booklet as “First Love,” “Jealousy,” and “Delusions and Madness,” reflected the subjects of the arias. The program’s overall title “The Power of Love” was shared with the performers’ new audio CD, which was marketed shamelessly throughout the evening.
It is easy to see how the Apollo’s Fire approach to Baroque music has won it several Billboard awards. While following current trends, their performances are not unmusical or unoriginal. They clearly benefit from rehearsing and performing together regularly, unlike some other ensembles which, despite bearing readily recognized names, are effectively pick-up groups. Although all “Baroque” orchestras these days follow pretty much the same quasi-historical performance practices, Apollo’s Fire has a lush and fairly aggressive string sound of a type that might once have been considered “modern” by early-music specialists. Indeed, Sorrell’s arrangements and her conducting render some selections remote from anything truly historical. But the carefully worked out rubatos and dynamics in the more expressive pieces, as well as the gutsy playing in quick movements, are executed with impressive unanimity. A few minor ensemble problems Friday night can probably be attributed to First Church’s difficult acoustic.
Anyone who still cares about the historical part of so-called historical performance must nevertheless express some reservations about this sort of event. Sorrell was quite wrong, in both her program notes and her spoken commentary, to describe Vivaldi’s B-minor Concerto for Four Violins as music “written for teenagers.” Even if he did compose it for the women of the Pietà, a sort of orphanage where he worked on and off for much of his career, many of the original players were mature women of considerable musical accomplishment. To preserve their modesty, their performances took place out of view of the listeners—hardly the rock-concert ambience that Sorrell’s commentary invited listeners to imagine. (By the way, the Pietà still exists; you can visit their website here .) This concerto, which Bach admired sufficiently to arrange it for four harpsichords, was executed with great energy, but the addition of extra instruments thickened the sound, rendering opaque some of Vivaldi’s carefully constructed sonorities.
Something similar must be said of Sorrell’s arrangements of two other instrumental works on the program. I think she was joking when she accused Vivaldi of making the “mistake” of writing his “Follia” variations for just two violins and continuo (i.e., cello and harpsichord). She might have said the same of the variations on “La Bergamasca” by the earlier composer Uccellini, which opened the program. Like Respighi, Stokowski, and other twentieth-century updaters of old music, Sorrell transforms these straightforward Baroque dances into orchestral fantasias. Her arrangement of the Vivaldi work, played by the ensemble from memory, certainly spoke to the crowd, which responded with glee. But it also re-invents the anachronistic pop-ification of early music which the “historical performance” movement originally tried to get away from.
Sorrell’s program notes included a helpful “Reader’s Digest Version” of the opera plots, explaining the original dramatic situations of all six arias. But the repeated likening of Baroque music to contemporary commercial pop strikes me as inaccurate if not tiresome. Of course this music was popular in its day, but it possessed a deeper meaning than self-display or audience entertainment. Baroque opera was not only about “love and despair,” as asserted in the program notes. It is obviously effective to market a program like this one as “Passions of Handel and Vivaldi.” But, like Sorrell’s arrangements, doing so imposes a contemporary sensibility on the music, whose writers and first audiences were concerned with the difficult moral choices that faced great historical figures. We may no longer take seriously the conflict between love and duty that is so often the issue for a Queen Cleopatra or a Princess Agilea. But this conflict was a genuine ethical concern for Handel and his audiences, central to his musical dramas. His greatest characters transcend their mundane personal feelings, and it is the music that communicates this to us—although not in the arias selected for this program, all taken from relatively early in the plots of their operas.
A concert such as Friday night’s is a triumph not only for the soloist but for the contemporary marketing of so-called early music. I hope, however, that anyone who admires this type of music-making (and music marketing) also recognizes that popular entertainment need not be the only model for contemporary “classical” music.