This month’s subscription concert by Philharmonia Baroque concluded its run last night in Herbst Theatre. Nicholas McGegan conducted, and the soloist was countertenor David Daniels, singing Antonio Vivaldi’s setting of the “Stabat Mater” text and three arias (along with an encore for good measure) from operas and a cantata by George Frideric Handel. The instrumental portion of the program framed Daniels’ performances, beginning and ending with the music of Georg Philipp Telemann.
Vivaldi’s cantata is one of his earliest vocal compositions, if not one of the earliest of all of his works. He was hired by the Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia to compose it for the 1712 Holy Week services. The text dates from the thirteenth century and is a meditation on the Crucifixion that was probably intended for Good Friday. As poems go, it would have been quite a challenge for a young musician just getting started.
Peter Cook used to introduce a Dudley Moore parody of Schubert by describing the music as a setting of a text by Heinrich Heine “in which the poet and his lover bemoan and bemoan and … bemoan.” One might say that the “Stabat Mater” poet chose to bemoan Mary moaning and the foot of the Cross; and the moaning goes on for twenty three-line stanzas in mercilessly repetitious metre and rhyme. Each stanza is in trochaic tetrameter with a one-foot rest at the end of the third line, perhaps intended to give the impression of nails being driven into the Cross. The rhyme scheme is a tad more interesting, spanning pairs of stanzas in AAB/CCB form.
Fortunately, Vivaldi had the good sense not to take his lead from the poetic structure. Rather, he drew upon the practices of musical rhetoric to do justice to the semantics of the text, advancing his way through the stanzas at a pace suitable for meditation without wallowing in the poet’s bemoaning. He also chose to reward his listeners with a far more upbeat “Amen” setting at the conclusion of the poem.
Daniels and McGegan settled on a pace suitable for Vivaldi’s setting. Daniels applied a suitably restrained level of dramatism to his execution, thus avoiding going over the brink in bemoaning. This is a side of Vivaldi that has received relatively little attention, but Daniels and McGegan made a convincing case that it does not deserve to be entirely ignored.
On the other hand they also the case that, where dramatism is concert, Handel was Leader of the Pack in his day. All four of the arias (only one of which was performed with a Recitativo introduction) offered by Daniels were in the usual da capo form; and each performance demonstrated how expressive that form could be, setting a mood, offsetting it with a contrasting mood, and then returning to it in the new context set by the contrast. In the past I have tried to argue that “such arias only achieve their fullest power when embedded in their surrounding narrative,” that being the narrative of the entire opera or cantata from which they have been excerpted. Nevertheless, Daniels’ interpretation brought far more dramatic weight to his selection of arias, even in isolation, than one could ever expect from the “Stabat Mater” poem.
The two instrumental works by Telemann that framed the evening both involved multiple horns; and Principal Horn R. J. Kelley and his colleagues offered a valuable introduction to the instrument for the evening’s pre-concert talk. The first work on the program was the TWV 54:D2 D major concerto for three horns and violin. It was a stimulating example of the different approaches Telemann could take involving the relationship between soloists and ensemble, the coordination of the three horns, and the ways in which the violin (performed by Carla Moore) alternated between engaging with the ensemble and engaging with the horns. The overall effect was one of being highly imaginative without ever sounding contrived.
The program concluded with the TWV 55:F11 F major suite known as the “Alster Overture,” named for an impressive man-made lake in the center Hamburg. As McGegan explained to the audience, the music was composed for a “state visit” by Hamburg by the Archbishop of Cologne. Because the Alster was not a natural formation, there may have been a subtle agenda in using the visit of a Catholic Archbishop to celebrate a crowning achievement of the “Protestant work ethic;” however, Telemann had the good grace to approach his musical setting with a healthy (if not raucous) sense of humor. Just about every movement of the suite involves some form of musical sound effect, the most memorable probably being the frogs in the antepenultimate movement. The program notes by Scott Foglesong did not record whether the Archbishop received these musical high jinks with the appropriate sense of humor, but last night’s audience had no trouble getting in on all of the jokes.