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The second of three concerts in Baroque and Beyond's Tenth Anniversary season focused much on the subject of love. Chapel Hill's very own ensemble for HIP (Historically Informed Performance) practice applied period instrumentation and style to an eclectic mix of vocal and instrumental works by George F. Handel (1685-1759) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). The pews of the original 18th century Chapel of the Cross were well-filled with connoisseurs of the Baroque.
Sopranos Florence Peacock and Penelope Jensen have long set a high bar for regional standards in vocal performance. Both delivered a masterclass in clarity of diction, singing beautifully in three languages – English, German, and Italian. The vocal ornamentation was tasteful with sustained notes and trills.
The three instrumentalists provided plenty of variety as they accompanied as duos or trios. Beverly Biggs anchored every selection expertly from her harpsichord with a beautiful tone and marvelous articulation in the fastest passages. A refined, warm tone was just one of the delights of Christopher Nunnally's cello playing. His extended pizzicatos blended with Bigg's keyboard and were magical. Variety was the keynote to William Thauer's performance on three wind instruments: Baroque oboe, oboe da caccio, and recorder. The mellow sound of the Baroque oboe has always been a favorite of mine as is the unique sound of the oboe da caccio heard in so many of Bach's cantatas. The latter resembles a Rube Goldberg-like assemblage. This instrument had only around thirty years of popularity, and its settings are rarely seen with the exception of performances of Bach's choral works.
The concert opened with two recitatives and arias from Venus & Adonis, HWV 85. This cantata for soprano, oboe & basso continuo, with English text by the poet John Hughes, was left incomplete by Handel. This performance used a completed version by harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi. Jensen delivered the recitative passages with consummate care and sang the arias with a warm tone and nice touches to repeated passages. Thauer's creamy oboe sound blended well with Nunnally's cello and Biggs' keyboard to weave an ideal accompaniment.
Both concert halves benefitted from samplings from Handel's nearly 100 secular cantatas set to Italian texts, mostly from his early learning period in Italy (1706-12). From his Il Gelsomino, HWV 164, Peacock performed the recitative "Tremolante e leggiero" and the aria "Spesso mi sento dir" ("Often I hear myself addressed") with cello and harpsichord accompaniment. Peacock sang with a bright tone and an evenly supported voice, each word carefully articulated. Nunnally and Biggs provided fine collaboration and backing.
HIP purity was given a humorous "wink" with Nunnally's selection of Handel's cello sonata for performance. He explained that Handel composed no cello sonatas, but that he had seen a viola sonata attributed to Handel. Thanks to Biggs for a link to deeper information. I believe this is the Sonata in C drawn from a spurious work for viola or viola da gamba, long attributed to Handel or impossibly to Johann Matthais Leffloth, and recorded by Lynn Harrell. It has winning melodies and a wonderful third movement pairing keyboard with cello pizzicati.
The first half of the concert closed with a cantata excerpt by J. S. Bach featuring the rare use of the oboe da caccia. "Komm, komm mein Herz" from Cantata 74 Wer mich liebet ("He who loves me") was sung by Peacock* who again performed beautifully with clear diction, outstanding tone and virtuosity. Thauer gave a most winning performance that brought out all the unique tone qualities of the antique wind instrument that so captured Bach's imagination. These virtues were present after the break when Jensen sang Bach – "Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen" from Cantata No.1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.
Following this work, we were treated to Handel's secular cantata Solitudini care, HWV 163 in which the poetry of the recitative rivaled that of the aria "Sei bugiarda" which followed. Peacock spun a gorgeous melodic line ably buoyed by Biggs and Nunnally.
Both singers joined for the famous Echo Aria, "Flösst mein Heiland" from the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (from Cantata IV). Jensen brought out the drama and earnestness of the text while Peacock literally echoed the key words, "Nein" and "Ja" from the rear of the church. This was supported by the luscious oboe of Thauer and continuo of Biggs and Nunnally.
The concert ended with a lovely performance of four of the original seven movements of Handel's Sonata in D minor for Recorder and Continuo, HWV 367a (Opus 1, No. 9).
Thauer's lovely and virtuosic recorder playing was supported by Biggs and Nunnally and the crisp articulation of the two fast selections, Vivace and Furioso, were especially delightful.
* Edited on January 24, 2017.