Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Balancing act

Rinaldo Alessandrini in action.
What makes the period music movement so exciting is that it's in such ferment that there are dozens of different musical voices and visions jostling for space within it.  (There's really no comparable spectrum of interpretation among conductors of the "standard" repertoire - the BSO may vary a bit in quality from week to week, but it generally moves within a circumscribed artistic horizon of "excellence.")

And happily, we often get to see that ferment bubbling at the Handel and Haydn Society; whenever artistic director Harry Christophers is away (no slouch himself!) the Society invites major international figures like Richard Egarr and Roger Norrington to the podium, who reliably shake things up musically and intellectually.

Last week's H&H concerts proved no exception to this tradition, as the Society hosted Italian conductor and keyboard master Rinaldo Alessandrini (above), who has been tearing up the Continent in recent years with his acclaimed "Concerto Italiano" ensemble.  The program was territory Alessandrini knew well: Pergolesi's classic setting of the Stabat Mater for two voices, as well as his lesser-known "Salve Regina" (both composed at the very end of his short life), along with two concerti: Francesco Geminiani's Concerto Grosso Op. 3, No. 3, and Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D (BMV 1054).

So - to be honest, one sits down at these events wondering, "What's going to be the big idea this time?" Well, Alessandrini - a gently intense, romantically dapper presence onstage, who conducted from the harpsichord - says his passion is for “cantabilit√†.” Now this loosely translates as "singability," so it doesn't tell you much; but what was evident from performance was that Alessandrini is all about balance, detail, and harmonious proportion.  Hence these performances were models of delicate, graceful control - there were no large, daring gestures - and little impish eccentricity, either; refinement was the order of the day.  If there was a larger artistic statement to be gleaned from Alessandrini's finely-tuned engineering, I'd say it had something to do with another kind of balance: the intriguing way in which the text of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater exists in tension with its musical setting - which, as this concert convincingly argued, owed much to the new "singing" Italian style.  In other words, Pergolesi's suffering Virgin Mary stands (the Latin title literally translates as "Standing Mother") with one foot in the sacred but the other in the secular.

And right now, to be honest, a commitment to graceful balance is a perfect fit for the newly-remodeled H&H string section (which dominated these concerti).  I commented after the H&H season opener on how artistic director Christophers had brought a new sheen to the period orchestra's sound; and if anything, under Alessandrini the strings sounded more focused and flexible than ever; there was simply gorgeous playing on offer here, particularly in the Geminiani "Adagio."  (Unsurprisingly, the instrumentalists returned the love Alessandrini had clearly lavished on them with a stomping ovation at the concert's close.)

But you know me; I had my nits to pick.  The program was a thoughtful one, with a subtle and convincing argument tracing influences and echoes back and forth between the three composers on offer.  Still, if the intent was to highlight the emergence of the harpsichord as a solo instrument in the Bach, then I'd have to say its musical line still sounded slightly too submerged - not because of Alessandrini's playing, which was one sparkling, light-fingered flow, but rather because his conducting duties meant that his back was to the audience, and so even though the lid was off the harpsichord, its sound couldn't quite compete in size with that of the rest of the orchestra.

Meanwhile the singing - by soprano Liesbeth Devos and mezzo Emily Righter - was likewise generally transporting, but did make you ponder certain issues in transit.  The emphasis on proportion and "singability" meant that this Stabat Mater - which is, after all, rooted in Mary's suffering before the Cross - was only occasionally as piercing as I've heard in other performances (perhaps because things sounded a little rushed in places), although both vocalists impressed with the richness and gravity of their interpretations.  The strikingly statuesque Righter - slightly overdressed in a lavishly ruched turquoise gown - employed more vibrato than you usually hear in period performance, but her voice has a remarkably burnished, almost tragic lustre, and she seemed to go deeper emotionally than anyone else on stage.  Meanwhile Devos was perhaps more agile throughout her range (which glittered most at its top), but sometimes sounded as if she sympathized, but could not identify, with her text.  Such are the pitfalls, I suppose, of secular and sacred "balance"!  The good news is that the voices of these two did blend exquisitely - in purely musical terms, their timbres mapped memorably to the kind of evocative equilibrium Alessandrini seemed to be seeking.

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