SUPERB PURCELL AND HANDEL CLOSE OUT THE 2019 BACH FESTIVAL
Amanda Forsythe, Suzie LeBlanc and Dorothee Mields (soprano), Alex Potter and Nicolas Burns (alto), Samuel Boden and Jonathan Quick (tenor), Sumner Thompson (baritone), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Pacific Baroque Orchestra (dir. Alexander Weimann), Pacific MusicWorks (dir. Stephen Stubbs): Music of Locke, Purcell, and Handel, Christ Church Cathedral and Chan Centre, August 7/9, 2019.
The first week of the 2019 EMV Bach Festival saw some magnificent singing, but the second week was even finer. The closing Purcell ‘Hail, Bright Cecilia’ placed a memorable seal on this sequence of 14 concerts, gathering together many of the celebrated singers from previous outings, and featuring inspirational playing from the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann. Two days earlier, soprano Amanda Forsythe put on an equally stunning show in dramatic works of early Handel, accompanied most artfully by Stephen Stubbs and the instrumentalists of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks.
The final concert was an absolute delight, beginning with excepts from Matthew Locke’s ‘The Tempest’. These traversals yielded possibly the most integrated and beautiful sound I have yet heard from Maestro Weimann’s orchestra, combining a lovely glow and refinement with a natural rhythmic energy and dramatic shape. The orchestra communicated fluently, without any of the tonal hardness and over-control that one might have occasionally observed in the past. The playing of the strings and winds was enticing, full of sensitive shadings, and the trumpets and timpani put on a most exacting display in their dramatic forays. Sopranos Suzie LeBlanc and Dorothee Mields were fresh off a concert featuring the remarkable 17th century composer Barbara Strozzi the night before, and they combined here for a delightful rendering of John Blow’s ‘Welcome, Every Guest’. LeBlanc’s pristine sense of style has long been established, but what intrigued me here is just how much vocal versatility and delight Mields can offer: her long legato lines and sculpted shape in more serious arias usually reap the attention.
Purcell’s ‘Hail, Bright Cecilia’ again found the orchestra in top-notch form. Maestro Weimann was characteristically disciplined, but he also impressed in probing the sensitive strains of Purcellian melancholy. The dynamics of the wind lines were particularly well-judged. The two sopranos joined in a chorus of 8 singers total (2 as ripieno); they offered further delights on their own in the aria ‘Thou tun’st this World below’. The distinguished contribution from the male singers was evident from the outset in ‘Hark, each tree its silence breaks’, where Matthew Brook and Alex Potter sent things off with fine naturalistic hues. For me, the virtuosity and sheer character in Brook’s bass-baritone was one of the big highlights, equally affirmed in ‘Wondrous Machine!’ and, later, in ‘Let these amongst themselves contest’ with baritone Sumner Thompson. Potter’s wonderfully-spun alto lines were much in evidence in ‘The Airy Violin’, and his collaboration with young tenor Samuel Boden proved as enticing in ‘In vain the Am’rous flute’. Boden showed considerably more of himself here than in his opening concert, illustrating his fine timbre, range and sensitivity, though his lyrical/ dramatic line still seems on the shorter side. The choral contribution was as fine as one expected, and extended beyond just admirable vocal strength and blend. The extraordinary lightness and balance of texture in ‘Soul of the World’ was noteworthy, while the cunning combination of lyrical strength and rhythmic intensity made the closing chorus add up memorably. The orchestra backed the singers every step of the way.
The concert two days earlier saw Early Music Vancouver’s fourth visit from American soprano Amanda Forsythe, and her third featuring Handel. Her debut outing here was in Handel’s very first oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in 2014 (review) and, since then, one has observed how she has increasingly learned to put her virtuoso technique at the service of the narrative and vocal requirements of the text. While there is always brilliance, tonal beauty and a savouring of emotional extremes, the singing now achieves such dramatic coherence and integration that her technique never draws attention to itself.
Forsythe carried on with more early Handel here, starting with the secular cantata ‘Agrippina condotta a morire’, a prelude to the full opera Agrippina (1709). The wonderfully melodramatic text – comprised of both recitatives and arias – depicts the Roman empress on the way to her execution, ordered by her son, the emperor Nero, whom she had originally helped put on the throne. As a text of ‘abandonment’, the soprano did a wonderful job in assimilating all its complex emotional contours and vivid mood changes while maintaining a particularly clean, concentrated line. One is hardly spared virtuoso vocal challenges from the outset of this piece, nor the need for the strongest dramatic punctuations, yet Forsythe managed to find all the detail and tensile strength to illuminate this expressive fabric, mixing extreme agility, volatility and passion with a more serene contemplation. The result was beautifully assured and radiant at the same time as being thoroughly conscientious and probing.
The two shorter cantatas, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and ‘Armida Abbandonata’ added to the bounty, again featuring enviably honed detailing but perhaps giving even more prominence to Forsythe’s ability to build a long, gradated lyrical line – vocally warm and coaxing. The aria ‘Ah! Crudele, e pur ten’ vai’ from the latter cantata was compelling in this respect as, for that matter, was the lovely rendering of the single aria ‘Col partir la bella Clori’ at the end of the first half. I enjoyed that the singer could at times reach out to a fully operatic dramatic involvement while, at others, treat the text as a storyteller would, almost assuming a balladic posture at a distance.
Lutenist Stephen Stubbs has taken this music to heart for many decades and, alongside a sterling contribution from his Pacific MusicWorks, his absorption of the idiom showed everywhere – faithful, knowing but never obtrusive. Of the two purely instrumental pieces, both Trio Sonatas, the Corelli (Op. 4 No. 1) moved with wonderful ease and lightness – almost like spring water – while the Handel (Op. 5 No. 4) was an embodiment of natural musicality and warmth – with the rustic dance not far away. I should mention the elegant contribution of violinist Tekla Cunningham.
© Geoffrey Newman 2019