Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Chamber Music Society

April 4, Church of the Holy Comforter

“Rule Brittania?” Not lately, musically or otherwise. But there were times . . .

George Frideric Handel’s time, in the first half of the 18th century; Henry Purcell’s time, in the last decades of the 17th century; John Dowland’s time, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. All three were distinctive, and distinctively English, composers (the German-born Handel by adoption), who set the country’s aspirations and temperament to music as well as any composers in any lands at any time.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia offered that welcome reminder in the first of three concerts of baroque music rounding out its 2013-14 season.

Cellist James Wilson, the society’s artistic director, recruited a cast of top-tier instrumentalists and singers of the historically informed performance (HIP) school. Heading the list, the German violinists Florian Deuter and Monica Waisman, whose energy and virtuosity made a lasting impression when they first visited Richmond in 2009.

Deuter and Waisman sizzled anew, leading an ensemble in two of the Op. 6 set of concerti grossi by Handel. Their playful call-and-response in the rollicking finale of the A major, Op. 6, No. 11 – plus the crunchy resonance of the bass continuo provided by cellist Wilson, harpsichordist Francesco Padrini and lutenist David Walker – probably will run through the mind’s ears of many in the audience for days to come.

The string bowers and pluckers, joined by oboist Meg Owens, were no less musically potent, and a shade tighter as an ensemble, in the program’s opener, the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5.

The resonant acoustic of the church sanctuary lent orchestral scale to the performances of one- or two-to-a-part instrumental forces.

Deuter and Waisman also were featured in the Chaconne from Purcell’s Sonata No. 6 in G minor. This slow dance was widely employed in baroque instrumental suites, most famously by Bach in his solo-violin Partita No. 2 in D minor. Purcell’s treatment is more decorous and danceable, and so perhaps sounds less profound or weighty than Bach’s. Purcell, however, weaves a more elaborate texture with two fiddles and gives their players more opportunity for expressiveness and spontaneity. Deuter and Waisman exploited the difference.

Three familiar Purcell songs, “Fairest Isle” (from “King Arthur”), “Music for a While” and “If Music Be the Food of Love,” and three by Dowland, “By a Fountain,” “Time Stands Still” and “Shall I Sue,” showcased soprano Jessica Petrus and tenor Owen McIntosh. Both proved to be estimable early music stylists, Petrus with an achingly lovely, low-vibrato “white” tone that especially suited the more yearning and lovelorn Dowland numbers, McIntosh with a more assertive, theatrical style that paid special dividends in the Shakespeare setting.

Playing less prominent, but no less impressive roles in this program were recorder player Anne Timberlake, who paced the ensemble in John Blow’s Overture to “Venus and Adonis” and, using two registers of recorder, complemented Petrus’ voice in “Fairest Isle;” mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias, featured in Handel’s highly charged Italian love aria “Dolc’è pur d’amor l’affanno” (“The pain of love is sweet if suffering”); and Peter Walker, playing the mellow, alto-voiced English bagpipes in a couple of dance tunes.

Walker’s mini-set, and an earlier one featuring Timberlake, were helpful reminders that the divide between classical and popular music is a modern one. Handel, Purcell and other composers of their eras felt free to adopt folk and popular music, especially dance tunes. Their putatively lowbrow contemporaries no doubt returned the favor. Old England, musically at least, was merrier for it.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia continues its spring baroque festival, “Aspects of Time,” with a free mini-concert by violinist Florian Deuter and Monica Waisman at noon April 5 at the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets, and ticketed concerts at 7:30 April 5 and 4 p.m. April 6 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, Monument Avenue at Staples Mill Road. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 519-2098;