Monday, March 2, 2009

Bon voyage

Handel and Haydn's "Baroque Grand Tour" last weekend was something more like a ramble; I left not really understanding, for instance, the connection between Purcell's "Masque for Dioclesian" and his "Funeral Sentences," nor the link between them and the Brandenburg No.3.

But I also didn't care. Indeed, I felt almost as if I were floating on air, the "Masque" had proved so delightful. Conductor Paul Goodwin led his audience on a kind of whistle-stop tour, it was true - and yes, there were one or two speed bumps along the way. But the final, nearly-unknown destination proved so charming, and so many of the pitstops had been so diverting, that none of this mattered. The concerts marked the H&H debut of Mr. Goodwin, another one of those iconoclastic early-music stars that Britannia seems to be popping out by the dozen these days, and I would urge anyone interested in the Baroque (or anyone looking for a good time) to book a ticket on his next expedition.

Goodwin's first stop was Couperin's Concert dans le goût théâtral, a dance suite which is essentially one French court composer's tribute to another (Lully), and felt like the most 'academic' piece of the evening (there was much in the program about its cross-currents of French and Italian influences). To the non-specialist, the Couperin was always graceful and engaging (and the "Air de Baccantes" sparkled with real fire), although in its slower movements the flutes and winds sounded a bit tentative. The ensemble immediately cohered, however, for Purcell's "Funeral Sentences," a plaintive setting of the graveside service from the Book of Common Prayer that was sung at the funeral of Queen Mary (along with Purcell's more-famous fanfare). Here, suddenly, our baroque grand tour seemed to leap several centuries, but whether forward or back it was hard to tell, as the dissonant chromaticism of "Funeral Sentences" feels simultaneously pre-Baroque and strangely modern. Wherever (or whenever) we "were" in musical history, the H&H chorus delivered a haunting distillation that made the piece sound timeless.

The concert then took another left turn, as it were, to the Brandenburg No. 3, which Goodwin had decided to play in a variant which included an "oboe band" - only not quite, as it turned out the high trumpets Bach called for were not available (as Goodwin had made his decision late in the day). Okay. I hate shrugging at moments like this and saying, "It's all good," but this time it was, actually, all good - despite the apparently short rehearsal time (did the Couperin pay for this, I wondered briefly?) the winds brought an interesting edge to the first movement (the ensuing Adagio is only a five-second bridge), and Goodwin conducted with a fiercely dancing energy. The final Allegro was even more rollicking - it was announced by a spectacular cadenza from first violin Daniel Stepner that Jimi Hendrix might have envied, and it built in power and force as it progressed; by the finale, the folks in front of me were actually banging their heads.

After a brief recovery period during intermission, the entire second half of the evening was given over to Purcell's "Masque for Dioclesian," music composed for a lost form of staged entertainment that involved song, dance, elaborate costumes, and tableaux vivants of mythological or allegorical subjects. The texts (by Thomas Betterton) ran through the usual suspects: nymphs and shepherds and jolly drunks, all praising the power of love and disparaging the reins of reason. But the melodies, as so often in Purcell, somehow transcended genre and historical period - beginning with the opening invocation, here sung with soaring authority by Teresa Wakim. The piece then proceeded to banish any hint of winter's chill from the hall - although the general joie de vivre was occasionally cut by a deep melancholy, as in Ryan Turner's ravishing rendition of "Still I'm wishing, still desiring." Elsewhere there were wonderfully hearty performances from Paul Guttry, Charles Blandy, and Donald Wilkinson, and a lusciously coy turn from Susan Consoli. Listening to the final, glorious chorus, it was hard not to believe that spring was just around the corner.

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