Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) brought super novae performances to Emmanuel Church last Friday. While appearances of this virtuoso orchestra have been blessedly regular in the past several years, Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg’s considerable artistry has not before made itself fully known hereabouts. This concert offered ample opportunity to hear what all the buzz is about.
A feature article in the February 23rd Sunday New York Times tantalizingly titled “What a voice. Who Was That?” neatly set the stage for Boston’s BEMF concertgoers. The article went on: “Celebrated in Europe but little known in America…” Indeed, many of my colleagues knew very little of this singer’s reputation, save for a distant memory of her having successfully stepped in at the last minute in Zurich in 2003 to sub. for an indisposed Cecilia Bartolli. BEMF had also brought her to their 1999 production of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante wherein she sang Deianria. But no full-fledged recital until Feb. 28th — and quite the evening it was.
Venice Baroque Orchestra has hit upon a winning plan: concertize with wonderful guest artists in tow. In Rockport last summer they dazzled with mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital. This is not to suggest that this remarkable ensemble “needs” a guest artist. Far from it. They are one of the world’s leading Baroque orchestras. This becomes especially evident when they play music of their countrymen. Vivaldi has loomed large in their concert presentations over the years, and I am eternally grateful to them for opening my eyes and ears to the far-reaching genius of this estimable composer. On this occasion, Vivaldi shared the stage briefly with Pietro Torri (ca. 1650-1737), a composer of 20 operas, and Riccardo Broschi (ca. 1698-1756), elder brother of the famous castrato Farinelli. Handel, however, was the dominant contrast to Vivaldi this evening.
The program opened with the orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in B minor for Strings and Basso Continuo RV 168 and one immediately noted this ensemble’s gift of gorgeous string tone projected throughout the entire pp-ff dynamic range. One was really conscious of the rich gut-string sound that pervades their performances. However, the somewhat odd acoustic of Emmanuel Church – at least in Row M – prevented me from hearing the harpsichord, whose position nose-in to the ensemble surely aided the players but was virtually inaudible where I sat.
Hallenberg then emerged from backstage to sing Dopo l’orrore from Handel’s Ottone (1723) and Torri’s Quando il flebile usignolo (1731) with its lovely violin solo and sung imitations of a nightingale’s birdsong. Both impressed in expression and execution, her improvised ornamentations of the da capos sounding quite tasteful and elegant, but she had seemingly not yet fully come into her comfort zone.
The orchestra continued with an extraordinary performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, RV 514 which was richly played by Concertmaster Gianpiero Zanocco and colleague Mauro Spinazzè. With unisons played so carefully as to sound as if only one instrument were performing, the violin sections backing the two soloists almost stole the limelight. Wow, do these players listen to each other! I found the soloists equally compelling. Unlike many two-violin concerti I have heard, Spinazzè did not slavishly imitate the phrasings and bowings of his colleague. Rather, he supplied bowings and phrasings different and in contrast to what had been played by Zanocco. The result was an uncommonly intriguing and engaging performance for this nicety alone. The superb playing from all concerned rose to the evening’s instrumental high point.
In the subsequent two Vivaldi arias, Gelido in ogni vena from Il Farnace (1727/30), and, notably, Armatae face et anguibus from Juditha triumphans (1716), the mezzo seemed more vocally settled: I say notably for the latter, for it was here I felt we were hearing the true artist at her vocal and interpretive height. Fireworks ensued from both singer and orchestra as they limned the fervid text and passed rapid-fire musical ideas between them – a thrilling ending to the first half.
An opening four rows ahead of where I was originally seated was open, so I moved forward and heard the concert’s second half that much closer to the ensemble, and it made a huge difference. The sound was less muzzy and more direct, and I could now actually hear bits and pieces of the harpsichord continuo, skillfully played by Rossella Policardo.
Vivaldi and Handel occupied most of the second half as amiable colleagues. While Vivaldi continued to astonish with his remarkable creativity and resourcefulness, Handel demonstrated again and again what it meant to take Italian opera to its next artistic achievement, one of extraordinary emotional communicativeness.
Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor for strings and basso continuo, RV 121 began the second half, and it was notable for the extraordinary contributions of lutenist Ivano Zanenghi, a supportive musician of the highest order who was a joy to watch and hear throughout the evening. His glances toward his cello colleagues and his smiles directed to the other performing musicians were emblematic of this ensemble’s remarkable gifts of collaborative music-making.
In Handel arias: Crude furie from Serse (1738) and a recitative and aria — Ah, Matilda and Vieni, o figlio — again from Ottone, Hallenberg seemed in her prime, surmounting every vocal challenge with aplomb and grace, though I wish she hadn’t altered so many vowels. Perhaps the technique to sail through these fleet arias may have demanded some language concessions. No matter. She dazzled the audience and players.
The orchestra then “soloed” with Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major for strings and basso continuo, RV 114. The interplay between the two perfectly complementary ‘cellists Massimo Raccanelli and Federico Toffano and lutenist Zanenghi was once again a joy to see and hear.
Hallenberg returned with a superb interpretation of E vivo ancora? and Scherza infida from Handel’s Ariodante (1735), and it is meant as the highest praise of her artistry to say the she reminded me at times of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s cherishable Handel aria performances heard within these walls.
To finish the published program, Hallenberg and her orchestra colleagues gave us Riccardo Broschi’s confection Son qual nave from Artaserse (1734), rampant with delightful bravura vocal and instrumental excursions, a brilliant ending to a demanding and exciting evening. But – there was more.
Tumultuous applause summoned two encores: the relatively obscure In brachia a mille furie from Nicolo Porpora’s Semiramide Riconosciuta and the well-loved Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo. The Porpora was dispatched with requisite fire, and Handel’s aria was laced with appropriate solace.
The audience wanted more, but Hallenberg gracefully signaled that she had sung enough for one evening, and amid more cheering, she and the ensemble left for Pittsburgh.
Gratitude and kudos are due again to BEMF for bringing such high-minded and superb programming to Boston audiences. It was a grand evening.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 40 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 47 years.