Early Music Media Review Print



Carolina Baroque CDs X 4

April 28, 2006 - Hillsborough, NC:


Carolina Baroque: Arias, Duets & Ballet Music from Handel Operas: Music from Rinaldo, Radamisto, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Ariodante, and Alcina. Carolina Baroque directed by Dale Higbee. CB-113, 52:50. Recorded in concert November 24, 2002, in the Chapel of St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury, N.C. $15, including postage and handling. This and other CDs reviewed herein are available from Carolina Baroque CDs, 412 South Ellis Street, Salisbury, NC 28144-4820 or online at http://www.carolinabaroque.org/.

Carolina Baroque/Salisbury Handel Festival. Music for Two Sopranos & Chamber Works by Handel: Trio Sonata in B minor, Op. 2, No. 1; Italian Duets Nos. 15-16; Trio Sonata in B-flat, Op. 2, No. 3; & Aminta e Fillide, for two sopranos with instruments, HWV.83. Carolina Baroque directed by Dale Higbee. CB-118, 76: 05. Recorded April 16, 2004, in the Chapel of St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury, NC. $15.

Salisbury Bach & Handel Festival: German Genius: Bach & Handel. Carolina Baroque: Teresa Radomski, soprano, Nicolae Soare, baroque violin, Gretchen Tracy, baroque cello, Susan Bates, harpsichord, & Dale Higbee, Music Director & recorders. CB-121, 59:58. Recorded in concert May 13, 2005, in the Chapel, St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury. $15.

Carolina Baroque: Bach, Handel & Vivaldi. Teresa Radomski, soprano, Mary Louise Kapp Peeples, harpsichord, John Pruett and Guy Oldaker IV, baroque violins, Marian Wilson, baroque viola, Gretchen Tracy, baroque cello, & Dale Higbee, Music Director/recorders. CB-122, 58:42. Recorded in concert October 21, 2005, in the Chapel, St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury. $15.

The arrival of CDs of four early music concerts from the Western Piedmont led to some reflections on the vagaries of the historically informed performance movement in North Carolina. Chapel Hill's early music group Ensemble Courant, after a golden period of repeated concerts to packed houses in PlayMaker's Theatre and elsewhere, passed into the mists of an oldster's yarns. It is amazing that Carolina Baroque is still plowing the fields of early music in Salisbury, of all places. A friend speculated that settlement by German colonists may have played a role in that local support. Founded in 1988 by baroque flute and recorder player Dale Higbee, Carolina Baroque has built up a recorded library of performances now numbering 23. Most, but not all, are single CDs, like the four reviewed here. Ensembles and festivals ought to consider Higbee's model and provide souvenirs of concerts to market their series and artists.


Using minimal forces, Carolina Baroque presents a broad survey of arias, duets, and ballet music from some of Handel's most important operas in Arias, Duets & Ballet Music from Handel Operas (CB-113). Anthony Hicks' articles on individual operas in New Grove II (online) provided the following information. Rinaldo was the composer's first Italian opera produced for London and the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage. The 1711 premiere featured the two leading castrati of the era, Nicolo Grimaldi ("Nicolini") and Valentino Urbani. Giacomo Rossi's libretto is based on episodes from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberate. The enchantress Armida holds the hero Rinaldo under her spell in a magical palace.

His second opera for London, Radamisto (April 27, 1720), was launched with royal patronage by the Royal Academy of Music company. The anonymous libretto is based on L’amor tirranico by Domenico Lalli and Zenobia by Matteo Noris. Set in Armenia in the year 53, it recounts the trials undertaken by Radamisto and his wife Zenobia to thwart the lusty and villainous King Tiridate. Two versions of the opera differ significantly in vocal casting.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (February 20, 1724) is the best known of Handel's operas. A New York City Opera production with Beverly Sills was available on a recording, as was a more recent one by the Virginia Opera Company. The plot is familiar from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra and Bernard Shaw's play of the same name. The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym was adapted from Giacomo Francesco Bussani's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1677). The title role and the roles of Sextus and Ptolemy were written for castrati. In modern productions, Caesar is transposed for a baritone or sung by either a mezzo-soprano or alto, or – more frequently – by a countertenor. Sextus is most often sung by a mezzo-soprano and Ptolemy, by a countertenor.

An unknown librettist adapted the text of Alcina from Antonio Salvi's Ginevra, principesa di Scozia, which set the fourth through the sixth cantos of Ludovico Aristo's Orlando furioso. Set during Charlemagne's campaigns against Islam, a knight, Ruggerio, enslaved by the sorceress Alcina, is rescued by the knight's fiancée, Bradamante, and her companion Melisso. Another unknown librettist raided cantos five and six of Aristo's epic for Ariodante, which opened Handel's first season in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on January 8, 1734. Considered one of the composer's finest operas, it has had many revivals, most memorably in Charleston at the Spoleto Festival USA 1985; it has also been recorded several times.

True contraltos are rare in our musical landscapes, so the singer who is prominently featured on CB-113, Lee Morgan, is a welcome discovery whom we hope to hear in the concert hall. Rinaldo's aria "Caro sposa, amante cara dove sei?" displays the virtues of Morgan's dense and dusky voice in a long flowing line contrasted with a fast passage that shows off her flexibility. She subtly varies the repetitions. Introduced by delicate pastoral music, "Verdi prati," from Alcina, receives a moving performance by Morgan of Ruggiero's troubled remembrance of homeland.

Soprano Teresa Radomski is widely known from performances throughout the Piedmont. Her soaring highs and astonishing solid lower extension are heard in Alcina's aria "Ombre pallide," in which the sorceress bemoans the failure of her spirits to come to her summons. Such widely-contrasted voices make for superb duets. From Act I of Giulio Cesare, Morgan sings the role of Sextus while Radomski sings the role of his mother Cornelia. Their voices interweave, now blending in unison, now echoing each other. From Act III, the aria "Piangero" finds Radomski as Cleopatra, regretting losses and hopelessness, falsely thinking that Caesar is dead. In their Act III closing duet, "Caro! Bella!," the voices of Morgan and Radomski meld in a radiant blend.

Handel-like, Higbee has created a ballet suite of four short movements: a Sarabande from Terpsichore, a Sinfonia (Allemande) from Il Pastor Fido, a Rondeau and Entrée des Songes agréables from Ariodante.


The wonderful disc Music for Two Sopranos & Chamber Works by Handel (CB-118) provides triple pleasures. Carolina Baroque's fine instrumentalists are heard in two substantial works, the Trio Sonata in B minor, Op. 2, No. 1, HWV.386b, and the Trio Sonata in B-flat, Op. 2, No. 3, HWV.388. The colors and tones of each player are most realistically captured. It is especially rewarding to hear Susan Bates' tasteful harpsichord continuo in a true concert hall ambience. The ensemble's accompanying roles for the vocal works are just as demanding, calling for extended obbligato solos from each player. The baroque instrumental ensemble consists of violinist John Pruett, cellist Gretchen Tracy, harpsichordist Bates, and director Dale Higbee on a variety of piquant recorders.

Soprano Teresa Radomski is a familiar voice from this Carolina Baroque CD series as well as a performer throughout the Piedmont. Her solid, dark-tinged soprano is distinctive, and the mezzo-soprano-like firmness of her lower extension is particularly noteworthy. This makes her the perfect foil for another of the Triad's treasures, soprano Marilyn Taylor, whose bright and focused voice soars seamlessly to the heights. Her training "stable" at the NCSA has produced an enviable roster of first-rate singers; alas, she herself has been too seldom heard east of the Triad.

Each singer can be savored in a sequence of seven solo arias alternating with recitatives in Handel's Aminta e Fillide, HWV.83, a cantata for two sopranos with instruments. This enchanting work culminates with a duet. The part of Aminta is taken by Taylor and Teresa sings the role of Fillide. The piece abounds with gorgeous melodies that lie perfectly for the voices and give the instrumentalists plenty of scope for showmanship.

A startling surprise is to be heard in Italian Duets for Two Sopranos and Continuo. Originality was not such a bug-a-boo for baroque composers as it was to become later, and Handel never threw away any piece of music – he often recycled the notes in entirely different compositions. The music from these two duets comes from his stay in London (1710-45). The secular themes of Duet No. 15, "Quel fior che all'alba ride," HWV.192, and Duet No. 16, "No, di voi non vo'fidarmi," HWV.189, were transformed into the choruses "His yoke is easy," "And he shall purify," "For unto us a child is born," and "All we like sheep," in his oratorio Messiah. The strongly-contrasted timbre of Radomski and Taylor make it easy to savor each line as they are interwoven and exchanged.


Dale Higbee's CDs make satisfying souvenirs of the live performances. German Genius: Bach & Handel (CB-121) is a rewarding program that mixes reduced chamber music versions from Handel's opera and choral works with duo instrumental works by Handel and Bach.

When the Chandos label issued the complete "Chandos" Anthems of Handel on four CDs, they quickly became best sellers. The 32-year old Handel was appointed composer-in-residence to the Duke of Chandos in 1717. That able administrator became rich by speculating with the monies he received as Paymaster of the Forces Abroad during the War of the Spanish Succession. The composer chose the Biblical texts himself from the Psalms. Each anthem consists of arias and choral movements. For this program, Higbee selected the anthem psalm and an aria from Anthems Nos. 7-9. Played in the sequence of No. 8, No. 9, and No. 7, they form a pleasing fast-slow-fast suite.

Handel's opera Partenope, first performed at the King's Theatre on February 12, 1730, is based on a libretto by Sivio Stampiglia (1699). It depicts romantic intrigues at the court of Queen Partenope, the legendary founder of Naples. It can be considered a sophisticated tragicomedy of manners, where the Queen juggles no fewer than three suitors over the course of the action. At least one critic – Brian Robins – has drawn a parallel with another opera set in Naples, Mozart's Così fan tutte. Teresa Radomski sings the aria "Io ti l'impero dell'armi," from Act I, scene 11.

Imeneo was the last opera Handel presented before switching to a long series of oratorios. First performed November 22, 1740, at Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre, it was advertised in the press as an operetta. Its plot is derived from a Neapolitan serenata by Nicola Porpora in 1723, and love at cross purposes is the theme. Radomski gets to portray both leading women. In Rosmene's arioso, "Deh! m' ajutate, oh Dei!," in Act I, s.1, she expresses her doubts about choosing between two suitors. Clomiri's aria, "Se ricordar ten vuoi," about unrequited love of the hero Imeneo, is from Act III, s.3.

One vocal setting from J.S. Bach is given: the aria "Seele, deine Spezereien," from the Easter Oratorio, S.249.

All the vocal works are stylishly performed by Wake Forest University Professor Radomski. Listed as a soprano, she possesses unusually granite-like middle and lower ranges – almost a mezzo-soprano extension. She is sensitive to the expressive possibilities of the texts, and her diction is fine.

Two purely instrumental works are featured. From J.S. Bach's works for viola da gamba and continuo, the Sonata No. 2 in D, S.1028, is performed by cellist Gretchen Tracy and harpsichordist Susan Bates. Tracy's cello has a wonderful full warm tone, and her intonation is excellent, with no harsh notes. Bates' keyboard is naturally recorded and perfectly balanced. Her execution of trills and her clean articulations in fast passages are outstanding. The harpsichord is recorded just as it would sound in concert, with no artificial spotlighting.

Handel's settings for violin and continuo are rarely heard in this area. This makes listening to his Sonata in D, HWV.371, for violin and harpsichord, all the more rewarding. All the virtues of Bates' continuo playing described above are present here. There is a wonderful passage in which the harpsichord has the main theme while the violin takes the continuo role. Nicolae Soare's violin tone is burnished, and his articulation is clear as a bell. It is too bad this isn't a DVD. At the March 4, 2006, performance of Handel's Jephtha by the Piedmont Chamber Singers, one of the most striking sights was the unusual configuration of Soare's violin. It is a modern replica of a 1692 Testore, a model he informed me was known in those days as the "Devilfish." That is an apt allusion to its weird triangular upper portion.


In reviews of past issues, my colleagues and I have sometimes quibbled about programs that contained too many excerpts of works. While excerpts may work very well for the one-time experience of a live concert, rabid music collectors want complete recordings. This flaw is not present in Bach, Handel & Vivaldi (CB-122), which contains free-standing arias from a cantata, an oratorio, and two superb operas plus two concertos and a famous trio sonata, making for interesting and substantial works. Minimal forces are used in the concertos; this is a side effect of a very tight budget, but it often reaps musical dividends.

One of Vivaldi's best-known works, the Recorder Concerto in G minor ("La Notte"), Op. 10, No. 2 (RV.439), opens the CD. Its five movements run the gamut of program music. The ambiguous opening is reminiscent of the chaos at the start of Haydn's Creation. The next movement has eerie harmonies and timbres suggestive of ghosts, a build-up of tempo, and a churning of parts that evoke a rainstorm. The largo is an onomatopoeiac passage for snoring sleep, and the swirling strings and fleet recorder runs paint a sunrise with birdcalls. Higbee may be a retiree, but he still has his chops, knife-edge intonation, and the ability to turn on a dime effortlessly, whether changing tempo or dynamics.

Soprano Teresa Radomski sings the aria "Veni, veni, me sequere fida," from Vivaldi's great oratorio Juditha Triumphans, RV.644. A lovely instrumental introduction features the recorder singing a melody and trilling. The aria exploits Radomski's firm lower range, which verges on the mezzo-soprano register. A highlight finds the soprano in lock step with the recorder, each spiraling about the other. Her diction is exemplary in this and all the other vocal excerpts.

This disc would be worth getting just for the superb performance of Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in D Minor, Op. 1, No. 12 (RV.63), famous for its variations on "Folia," which originated as a folk dance in late 15th-century Portugal. This popular theme was exploited as a subject for clever variations by many composers over several centuries. Carolina Baroque featured violinists John Pruett and Guy Oldaker IV with the continuo provided by baroque cellist Gretchen Tracy and harpsichordist Mary Louise Kapp Peeples. The twists and turns of each variation are a constant delight to the ear and mind.

J.S. Bach's soprano aria "Mer en neue Oberkeet," from the secular Peasant Cantata, wishes an abundance of blessings upon the small village of Klein-Zschocher. It features a playful recorder melody above a measured accompaniment. Radomski's equally well-placed high range is brought into play, and her intonation is as pure as the notes of Higbee's recorder.

There have been several complete recordings of Handel's opera Rodelinda, Regina de Langobardi, HWV.19. Radomski plumbs the depths of grief in the aria ""Ombre, piante, urne funeste," from Act I, s.7. Hesitations in the opening measures and Higbee's plaintive recorder set the mood of mourning that dominates the selection. There is a moving solo from violinist John Pruett.

Real musical dividends come from Carolina Baroque's almost "trio sonata" performance of J.S. Bach's Concerto in F minor for solo harpsichord, two violins, viola, and cello, S.1056. Each musical line is crystal clear. The beautifully balanced sound of Peebles' harpsichord is captured superbly. These instruments' color and timbre make for maximum contrast. Program annotator Leonard Burkat describes this concerto as "rich in texture and vigorous in rhythm." The gorgeous purity of the solo line in the slow movement lives up to its reputation as "one of Bach's most beautiful instrumental arias." The harpsichord's melodic line is supported most of the time by crisp and pungent string pizzicatos.

Handel's opera Bernice, Regina d'Egitto, HWV.38, has an intricate and complicated plot (A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A) with various reversals. The soprano aria "Chi t'intende?," from Act III, s.4, finds Queen Bernice in despair, prepared to commit suicide because of her betrayal by her unrequited love, Demetro. This selection gives the greatest range of virtuosity for both Radomski and the ensemble. The unique, dusky sonority of Marian Wilson's baroque viola is as welcome in this as it is in several earlier selections.

CB-122 has very good sound quality. Unlike some of the series, there is no problem with ambient noise in the church from air conditioning or audience noise. I heard one muffled cough. The tone quality of the strings sounds natural and – best of all – the harpsichord is not artificially boosted."

William Thomas Walker


 

And finally, Carolina Baroque is in the news, since part of the ensemble's November 12, 2004, concert is being used in a new commercial film:

"Music from the CD Handel Sonatas & Telemann Quartets, recorded live on November 12, 2004, by Carolina Baroque, Dale Higbee, Music Director, in the Chapel of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, NC, will be included in a commercial film titled Little Chicago, now being made by Nimbus 9 Productions in Gastonia, NC. The film is being directed by Richard Clabaugh, Filmmaker-in-Residence: Cinematography, on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. The work featured is Handel’s Trio Sonata in A major, Opus 5, No. 1 (HWV.396), performed by Dale Higbee, recorder, John Pruett, baroque violin, Brent Wissick, baroque cello, and Susan Bates, harpsichord.

"Other selections on the same CD (CB-119, available from www.carolinabaroque.org) are Handel’s Sonata in G minor for viola da gamba & continuo, HWV.364b, and that composer’s Suite in A major for solo harpsichord, HWV.426. Music by Telemann includes the Quartet No. 4 in B minor (Paris, 1738), with Wissick playing baroque cello, and the Quartet No. 6 in E minor (Paris, 1738), in which Wissick plays viola da gamba. Holly Maurer, viola da gamba, performs continuo on the Handel gamba sonata and the two Telemann quartets."