Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: 'Baroque by Candlelight'

Dec. 9, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Festival of Music’s "Winter Baroque" mini-series concluded with a program of vocal and chamber works by George Frideric Handel. As the festival’s director, James Wilson, observed, Handel was a chronic recycler of melodies; so it was no great surprise for the audience to face a round of "Name That Tune."

Two choruses from "Messiah" turned up in a cantata for alto voice. Actually, it was the other way around: The principal tunes in "Quel fior che all’abba ride" ("The flower that smiles in the morning"), written in 1739, were recast in 1741 as "His yoke is easy" and "And He shall purify" in "Messiah." A tougher guessing game came in the finale of the Sonata in D major for violin and continuo (1750): This rhythmically herky-jerky quasi-march reappeared a couple of years later as the overture to Handel’s last oratorio, "Jephtha." (The last shall be first, literally.)

Countertenor Ian Howell applied his tonally woodsy, dramatically charged alto to winning effect in "Quel fior" and the earlier (c. 1710) romantic lament "Mi palpita il cor" ("My heart is restless") and the German arias "Süsse stille" ("Sweet quietness") and "Flammende Rose" ("Blazing rose"), with the chastely expressive, consistently complementary supporting voices of flutist Mary Boodell in "Quel fior" and violinist Martin Davids in "Flammende Rose" and the arias.

These and other selections sounded bigger than one might have expected from a small ensemble of baroque instruments, thanks to the rich, not to say voluptuous, continuo of cellist Wilson and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt and to the clean, bright acoustics of the church sanctuary. (Candlelight contributed both to atmospherics and concentration.)

Boodell, best-known as the principal flutist of the Richmond Symphony, showed her fluency with the baroque-style wooden transverse flute as she partnered Davids, Wilson and Schmidt in Handel’s Trio Sonata in F major.

Anne Timberlake, playing alto recorder in the Sonata in D minor, demonstrated fine technique and stylishness in fast sections, although she was upstaged by Wilson’s fast-fingered virtuosity in the sonata’s furioso movement, and brought unexpectedly rich lyricism to the slow movements.

Davids made a low-cal feast of the violin sonata, compensating for the baroque violin’s relative lack of brilliance by emphasizing affectus, or stylized emotion, in slow sections and focused, quicksilver tone in the faster music. He brought a fine rhythmic lilt to the "Jephtha" finale.