Chamber Music, Early Music Review



September Prelude VI Opens with A Festival of Early Music

September 11, 2009 - Chapel Hill, NC:


It was only appropriate for the Sixth September Prelude Series to feature Early Music or "Historically Informed" performances. The idea for September Prelude was introduced by UNC Music Professor Richard Luby in 2003 as a means of connecting audiences in the Triangle and of introducing more people with the offerings in the three cities. The three primary chamber music presenters are: the William S. Newman Artists Series at UNC Chapel Hill, the Chamber Arts Society at Duke University in Durham, and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Longtime Triangle music lovers remember violinist Luby as a founding member of the Society for Performance on Original Instruments (latter renamed Ensemble Courant), which introduced local audiences to performances on period instruments according to period styles in the 1980s.

The ten guest musicians come from UNC, Duke, Yale, Bard College, Northwestern, and The Juilliard School. UNC's Brent Wissick played both cello and viola da gamba. Duke-based Robbie Link, the Triangle's Jack-of-all-musics from blue grass to jazz, played the fretted violone, not the program-credited double bass. The violinists were Krista Bennion Feeney and Owen Dalby, the violist was Jessica Troy, and the second cellist was Phoebe Carrai. String instruments of this period have flatter bridges, lower string tension and, usually, gut strings. The keyless wooden flute (flauto transverse) was played by Sandra Miller and the lovely wooden oboe was played by Stephen Hammer. The superb harpsichordist was Ilya Poletaev. (Wissick told me this concert was tuned to A=415.)

Nothing says baroque more than the concerto grosso, the form of baroque music in which the musical material is passed among a small group of soloists, called the concertino, and a larger ensemble, called the ripieno. Archangelo Corelli was the first major composer to use the term concerto grosso, and the form was taken up by many other Italian composers including Antonio Vivaldi. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a European tour was considered an essential element of the finishing of a gentleman. In much the same way, composers from Northern European nations flocked to hear and study music in the various Italian city states.

None were more cosmopolitan than George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), who was born in Saxony, trained in Italy, and reached his greatest success in England. Most baroque composers saw themselves as craftsmen, not cutting edge original artists. Like Bach, Handel never seemed to have thrown away any of his or others' scores and would unhesitating use earlier material in new works.

Handel drew upon elements from one of his Chandos Anthems, his so-called Chandos Te Deum, and a keyboard work when he composed the Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 3, No. 3, for oboe, strings, and continuo. This performance fielded seven musicians: oboist Hammer, violinists Feeny and Dalby, violist Troy, cellist Carrai, and harpsichordist Poletaev. The last two made up the continuo group, supplying the bass line. I am more accustomed to ensembles twice as large playing these works, allowing for a stronger contrast between the concertino and ripieno. Never-the-less this intimate chamber music performance set the brilliant oboe solo of Hammer against a dialogue with the two violins. Hammer possesses an ideal tone and astonishing breath control.

In his time, the cosmopolitan and largely self-taught Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was more famous than J.S. Bach. He was widely travelled although he did not study in Italy, but he certainly absorbed the flowing, melodic Italian style. Some of his most fascinating works make use of elements from Polish folk music. Another style he made his own was the French suite of characteristic dances developed by the French clavecinists. Telemann's "Paris" Quartet No. 6, in E minor, for flute, violin, viola da gamba, and continuo is typical. It consists of five movements; a Prélude, followed by four descriptive movements — "Un peu Gay," "Gracieusement," "Distrait," and "Modéré." Miller played with a refined tonal palette and beautiful breath control. A highlight of the first movement is the composer's invitation to improvise. which Dalby did with virtuoso flourishes on his violin. Improvisation is characteristic to both baroque and jazz performance practice. The fourth movement featured the melodic material of the flute and violin being echoed by the gamba and continuo. The last movement brought the work to a lively conclusion.

Handel was most famous for his 42 operas (in Italian) and his 29 oratorios. His setting of the cantata Il palpità il cor, HVW 132, is typical of his style. It consists of a recitative, aria, recitative, and aria. The first recitative is unusual in having sung "arioso" passages. Soprano Ellen Hargis gave a stellar performance with superb diction and phrasing and an evenly supported, warm-toned voice across its range. Hammer's oboe matched her qualities in the arias. Wissick took up his cello and joined Poletaev's harpsichord to provide imaginative continuo support.

The Italian language encourages long-lined melodies but the French language does not. In the 18th century there was a reaction to the dominance of foreign (Italian) music at the French court dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) replaced Lully as the dominant composer of operas, and his were set to French texts. He was also one of the most important music theorists of the baroque era, and his harpsichord compositions rivaled François Couperin. His cantata Orphée, for soprano, flute, violin, and continuo, received a stunning performance. The clarity and precision of Hargis's French in the recitatives and airs was amazing. Her care for words and meaning came across in every phrase. Above all, she and her colleagues — flutist Miller and violinist Dalby, with Wissick and Poletaev — displayed the prized French qualities of elegance and precision.

The concert came to magnificent conclusion with a performance of Telemann's Concerto in E minor for Flute, Oboe, Strings, and Continuo involving all of the musicians except Wissick. This is one of the composer's most often recorded works, and it abounds with invention and melodies. It is in four movements: Largo, Allegro, Largo, and Presto. A highlight of the second slow movement is the extended pizzicato accompaniment (with lute stop on the harpsichord) for the singing melodic line of the oboe and flute. The finale evokes the droning sound of a peasant bagpipe.

Beautifully restored Gerrard Hall was filled with a very diverse and attentive audience, not the usual white- or blue-haired faithful but an astonishingly wide range of ages with a large contingent of elementary school children in addition to university students and workshop attendees.

Note: September Prelude concludes on 9/13 with an all-Bach program involving many of these artists in Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater. For details, see our calendar.