Monday, January 12, 2009

Delirio Amoroso: Works by Handel, Vivaldi, Couperin and Clérambault

Celine Ricci........................................................... Gonzalo Ruiz

Review by Rodney Punt

Sunday, January 11, 2009, 4 p.m.
Santa Monica (CA) First Presbyterian Church
Celine Ricci, soprano
Gonzalo Ruiz, oboe and recorder
David Morris, cello and viol da gamba
Ian Pritchard, harpsichord

It’s a new year, and the dawning season of Aquarius. Our thoughts turn to Love, even if sometimes of the troubling kind.

Musica Angelica, Los Angeles’ resident baroque ensemble, slimmed down to four guest soloists for the season’s first concert in its chamber music series, featuring rarely performed cantatas and sonatas by Handel, Vivaldi, Couperin, and Clérambault. Familiar faces returned as guest artists: soprano Celine Ricci, oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, cellist David Morris, and keyboard artist Ian Pritchard.

Under the banner of “Delirio Amoroso”, two cantatas in contrasting Italian and French baroque styles set the tone for a plunge into “delirious love”, as in “totally mad and out-of-control” love. We caught the second performance Sunday afternoon at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church.

Soprano Celine Ricci (see earlier review of May 3, 2007) continues to charm and disarm, and, when on Love’s warpath, re-arm. Opening and closing the program with two secular cantatas for solo voice, she once again displayed an impressive vocal technique, this time with heightened expressiveness in two works that explore the emotions of amorous obsession. Given the violent mental states projected, we can be thankful to have experienced it vicariously from the safe sidelines of our church pews.

Ricci opened with a spirited rendition of George Frideric Handel’s early Mi Palpita il Cor, a cantata in the Italian style, which pleads an affecting, if somewhat showy case of hopeless love. Its two arias contrast the afflicted pathos of the first with the vain hope of its attainment in the second.

An even more impressive work, Louis Nicolas Clérambault’s Medée, is a setting - in the more inwardly emotive French baroque style - of the famous Greek myth of love revenged. Ricci’s ability to channel this evocative material makes her a particularly fitting artist to plead the case for baroque opera and its cantata cousins. She can pick far flung notes out of the air perfectly and effortlessly, but her dramatic abilities were what stood out this afternoon. The anger of Courons a la vengeance (Let me haste to vengeance) was palpable in Ricci’s knife-like vocal runs; outbursts of stabbing pain were all the more graphic in her use of sharp vibratoless tones, as the metaphoric knife plunged inward.

Clérambault’s employment of the oboe as a demonic sound in the violent runs of the work’s two outer Airs, the aforementioned Courons and Volez, démons (fly, demons) was nicely countered with reassuring flute-like tones of the recorder in the gentle middle one, L’amour dans ses fers (Love has set its shackles). Their realizations were ideal in adept performances by Gonzalo Ruiz.

Elsewhere, Ruiz proved himself a performer of commanding ability with a solo outing in Antonio Vivaldi’s Oboe Sonata in C minor, RV 53. Introducing the work, he observed humorously that the oboe had a tone “elegant, thin and nasal, like that of a diplomat.” Bemoaning the rather generic title that identified his piece, he relayed that his mentor, James Caldwell of the Oberlin Conservatory, drolly named it the “Damnation” Sonata for an imagined struggle between a “virtuous soul” (the oboe) and “evil forces” (the accompanying cello and harpsichord).

Given the over-the-top drama in the cantatas, no one could blame Ruiz for a little self-dramatization, but none was necessary. His performance blew us away. The Sonata’s short movements included a particularly joyous oboe chase in the opening Allegro, plunging sighs and tender pleadings in the Adagio, and furious runs over a trot-like accompaniment in the final Allegro.

(The multi-talented Ruiz had also written the informative notes for the afternoon’s program.)

Harpsichordist Ian Pritchard gave a fine rendition of J.S. Bach’s transcription (with fleshed-out harmonies and a realized thorough-bass) of a Vivaldi solo violin concerto, redubbed as Bach’s Concerto in D major (BWV 972). Pritchard added his own tasteful ornamentations. His accompaniment throughout the rest of the program was a model of collaboration.

Just before the final cantata, the three instrumentalists reassembled for Francois Couperin’s Premier Concert Royal, a typical dance suite in the French style, with the added coloring of the soft-hued viol da gamba replacing the cello (as it would also in the cantata by Clérambault). Couperin’s enduring hold on modern audiences is through his characteristic miniatures, in this case the charmingly gauche Allemande and lively Gigue movements, and especially the melancholy Sarabande, its serpentine melodic line strewn with doleful, sweetly-trilled ornamentations.

David Morris, who performed on both cello and viol da gamba, commented on the origins of the latter. Though the two look deceptively alike (“like a shark resembles a dolphin”) the viol da gamba is really in the lute family, of Arabic origin, and is thus “under-hand” bowed, rather than over-handed as on instruments in the violin family.

The sound in First Presbyterian Church was tailor-made for this ensemble. Especially pleasing were the registers of the viol da gamba, and the surprisingly full and deep tones of the harpsichord, reportedly manufactured in the richly sonorous style of the French makes. Here is a hall that breathes, and allows delicate baroque instruments to resonate as they do in original baroque architectural spaces. Period instruments and performing styles cry out for appropriate acoustical spaces. We look forward to more Musica Angelica chamber performances at First Presbyterian.

Mythological love may have gone wanting in this program, but musical love was aglow all afternoon.

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