BEMF Vocal Ensemble {Amanda Forsythe and Emőke Barath, sopranos; Colin Balzer, tenor, Christian Immler, bass-baritone}; BEMF Chamber Ensemble {Stephen Stubbs, theorbo/ baroque guitar, Maxine Eilander, harp, Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, Erin Headley, viola da gamba}: Vocal Duets of Agostino Steffani, Christ Church Cathedral, September 29, 2017.

 All photos by Jan Gates

All photos by Jan Gates

The Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) has long been a key force in carrying historical performance forward in North America, particularly in finding many unexplored corners of the Baroque repertoire and bringing these to life. In Early Music Vancouver’s season opener, Stephen Stubbs and his distinguished BEMF colleagues introduced the vocal duets of Agostino Steffani (1653-1728), one of the forgotten Italians of the post-Corelli period. Steffani does not fit in the usually-cited Italian compositional lineage, one reason being that he lived and composed predominantly in Germany; another is that he absorbed a considerable amount of the musical resonance of Lully’s Paris. He also had a career outside music as an influential diplomat with connections to both the War of the Spanish Succession and the Counter-Reformation. Though his operas may be his greatest contribution, his vocal duets (in the Italian style) proved to be of sufficient originality to consolidate the genre at the time and, indeed, influence Handel significantly. If the obscurity of Steffani was enough to make this concert a special exploration, then one might also reflect on just how often a recital of vocal duets with chamber ensemble has been performed here in any form.


It would be difficult to find better vocalists than the four who participated: all have estimable reputations in historical performance. Most familiar are soprano Amanda Forsythe, who has previously captivated in Handel (she led off last season with great flair) and Colin Balzer, a wonderfully-accomplished tenor who has the distinction of being born in Vancouver. Lutenist Stephen Stubbs, cofounder of BEMF alongside Paul O’Dette, is now a regular visitor too, either performing in ensemble or with his Pacific MusicWorks. These artists took part in the splendid Erato release of Steffani’s opera Niobe Regina di Tebe, lauded by Gramophone in March 2015 as ‘an exemplary testament of superb musicianship from all participants… and a landmark event in Steffani's much-deserved rehabilitation.’

When one thinks of vocal duets, one typically thinks of their operatic form, where each singer represents a different character and a conversation transpires between them. The ‘Italian’ vocal duet from this period is not like that: both singers represent only one character, and must coordinate and amplify each other’s responses on a common text. Thus, their tonal and structural synergy, and their sense of line and pacing, has a critical importance beyond that of other vocal constructions. There is less room for soloistic display and, while there cannot be vocal ‘conversation’ as such, there is still a dialogue in formal counterpoint – as one often finds in instrumental or choral pieces. Cohesion and blend is paramount, yet the clarity of the contrapuntal lines also requires two voices that differ in both timbre and texture. This is easiest when male and female voices combine but, as we saw, there were a number of duets for two sopranos as well. All this might seem an easily manageable proposition if the music were austere; Steffani makes this challenging by writing duets which involve love, passion, and strong dramatic animation, in fact, the very things that inspire opera.

Seven duets comprised the programme – with short instrumental numbers interspersed between. While all the texts dealt broadly with the topic of forlorn love, each piece had a rather different feeling, not least because of the differing vocal combinations employed. Striking Hungarian soprano Emőke Barath and German bass-baritone Christian Immler certainly started things off with passion and fire in ‘Tengo per infallible’, with Stephen Stubbs and his continuo adding additional rhythmic force and gusto. Both singers combined for a very concentrated reading, full of urgency and cut-and-thrust: Barath’s light soprano had an enticingly airy freedom at the top to place with Immler’s precision and keen animation below. ‘Quanto care al cor’ put the two sopranos together and Barath’s relatively ephemeral textures made an intriguing contrast with Amanda Forsythe’s uniquely strong and resilient lines. Of the first half offerings, I particularly enjoyed the combination of Forsythe and tenor Colin Balzer in ‘E perche non m’uccidete’. The tenor has such a lovely warm lyricism in his expression and his phrasing has so much natural poise and seating. His singing meshed beautifully with the greater sharpness and dramatic sense of Forsythe. ‘Su, ferisci, alato arciero’ for the two sopranos was the most fun piece, as well as the most soloistic, since the singers have matching solo ‘gavottes’ to traverse. The coquetterie at the opening was charming, and the gavottes had enticing character. The overall combination of playfulness and rhythmic certitude carried this home with delight.   


Colin Balzer again brought great strength and feeling to two of the remaining three duets of the second half. His ‘Occhi belli’ with Emőke Barath was notable for its shadings and dynamics, the soprano really showing off her unique flexibility and tone.  Balzer’s warmth and dramatic sense made this an exciting combination, and the more pensive feelings at the end came out with gravity. Possibly even more beguiling was ‘Gelosia’, where the tenor’s sensitive articulation and lyrical reach came together with Forsythe’s sharply-etched projection to draw out a touching sense of yearning. There was remarkable clarity and balance in this singing. The ‘darting eyes’ and the volcanic passion of‘Fulminate’ of course suit Forsythe’s temperament and unbridled virtuosity to a tee and, in complement with Christian Immler’s energy, made for a thoroughly fulfilling close to the evening.

This was a unique concert. On this hearing, there can be little doubt about the quality of Steffani’s vocal duets: the composer has a keen dramatic sense, mixes his musical influences intriguingly, and seldom settles for routine. These performances brought out the energy, ardour and enthusiasm of his creations, and showed just how much the variety in the vocal qualities of the singers matter in execution. The tempos were often brisk, which is doubtlessly in line with authenticity. That said, in a few episodes of contrapuntal density, I did wonder whether the soloists might wish to trade some of their ardour and zeal for additional musical shape – through a more measured tempo. I cannot say enough about the unerring judgement and sense of style of Stephen Stubbs’ four-instrument continuo. Of the instrumental pieces, the Handel ‘Col partir la bella Clori’ was likely the most fetching, with the undulating viola da gamba line of Erin Headley hinting at the subtle, fluid motion of a tango. A CD recording of this programme with the same performers has just been released on CPO 5551352.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017