A Handel Feast at SummerFest

Every August the La Jolla SummerFest traditionally devotes a single festival concert to Baroque music, and Friday’s (August 8) Baroque extravaganza featured harpsichordist-conductor Michael Beattie at the helm. Although his program appeared to be equally divided between the music of G. F. Handel and J. S. Bach, the Handel offerings received the most ardent and polished attention from this crew.

Aisslinn Nosky [photo (c) Cylla von Tiedemann]

Aisslinn Nosky [photo (c) Cylla von Tiedemann]

Most striking was Aisslin Nosky’s jubilantly animated account of Handel’s D Major Violin Sonata (HWV 371), not exactly a staple of the virtuoso violin repertory, but a work that deserves company with Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata and its kin. Playing a period violin—following a design appropriate to c. 1800, according to Festival Music Director Cho-Liang Lin—with a period bow and technique, Nosky spun out the composer’s ornate figuration with uncanny and unforced agility.

She captured the rapturous swoon Handel wrote into his langorous Larghetto movements, yet there was no shortage of panache and scintillating color in the spicy Allegro movements. Beattie matched her style and expressive freedom at the harpsichord—they made an entrancing duo.

As the soloist in Handel’s Organ Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6, Beattie evidenced the clarity and sparkle Nosky did in her Handel Sonata, but not an equal portion of rapturous freedom in the composer’s abundant figuration. He played on a modest Positiv organ of a few ranks that nevertheless cogently balanced the five strings, two oboes and theorbo (a long-necked lute deftly played by Michael Leopold), a clarifying addition to the continuo instruments in good 18th-century practice.

Always the consummate showman, Handel invented the organ concerto to entertain his audiences during the intermissions of his oratorio performances. His published scores never included all the improvised embellishment the composer lavished on his concertos, about which we know from period accounts of his virtuoso playing, and Beattie gave only a hint of such ornamentation in the Concerto’s slow middle movement. His outer movements, however, remained quite straightforward and closely bound to the score.

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall brought appropriate drama and flourish to the aria “Con l’ali di costanza” from Handel’s opera Ariodante. Earlier on the program, Hall traversed Bach’s solo Church Cantata No. 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,“ with the sobriety its dour text required, but unfortunately this sacred work kept her much of the time in the lower portion of her range, the one weakness in an otherwise powerful and bright mezzo instrument. The aria allowed her to unleash the brilliance of her upper range and the passion she expresses with such fervor.

Although Bach’s Cantata No. 170 is a work replete with the composer’s custormary thematic invention and clever orchestration, its Pietistic text that dwells on the wretched lot of earthly existence did not make for a comfortable concert piece. I would suggest that one of the solo cantatas by Georg Philipp Telemann, Bach’s worldly and more successful contemporary from Hamburg, would have provided a vocally rich but less thematically difficult alternative.[php snippet=1]

Would that I could end the review here, but I need to bring up the program’s closing piece, Bach’s familiar Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048. Considering the evening evidenced such a wide range of musicians applying thoughtful 18th-century period practice to modern instruments—the young string players of the New York-based Omer Quartet deserve particular credit for their spirited and enlightened playing—it was disappointing for the four strings of the Miró Quartet to come onstage and hijack their colleagues into the bad old days of Bach performance.

Miró attacked the Concerto as if playing the Mendelssohn Octet, with muscular downbows and breathless phrasing that drove the tempo at near reckless speed. It reminded me of listening to Bach recorded before the War on 78-rpm records. And the La Jolla audience gleefully accepted this performance like 10 year-old children consuming cotton candy at the county fair.

[box] This program was given at La Jolla’s St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church on August 8, 2014, at 8:00 p.m. SummerFest 2014 continues through August 22, 2014, at various La Jolla locations.[/box]

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