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Few ensembles specialize in Baroque music That's why it was such a treat to explore literature that is off the beaten track, and Saturday night's performance by the Carolina Pro Musica filled the bill to a T. CPM was established in 1977 specializing in the performance of music written before 1800 on period instruments, following performance practices of the time.
The personnel that made up the ensemble of four include Karen Hite Jacob (artistic director and harpsichord), Edward Ferrell (flauto traverso and recorder), Holly Wright Maurer (viola da gamba, flauto traverso and recorder) and Rebecca Miller Saunders, soprano. Since 2001 they have been the Abbey Artists at Belmont Abbey College. (Artist bios made be read here.)
The evening opened with "Music for a While" by Henry Purcell (England, 1759-95). Taken from the incidental music written for the play Oedipus by John Dryden and Nathanial Lee, the short aria is written for soprano (or tenor), harpsichord, and bass viol (here performed on viola da gamba). The song unfolds over a repetitive bass line (known as a "ground"). The acoustics of the church were not wonderful: I wished the singer had been more prominent, for example. It was still a delight to hear this "classic."
"Ground after the Scotch Humour" by Nicola Matteis (Italy, 1670-1713) is an instrumental work – for all practical purposes, a flute sonata. Maurer solidly played the repeated bass line on gamba, and harmony was provided by Jacob's harpsichord. Ferrell's nimble fingers supplied the spirited recorder part.
A couple of vocal selections from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas (before 1688) brought all four musicians to the stage. The aria "Ah, Belinda, I am prest" (built again over a ground bass) featured Saunders winning singing, with Ferrell's recorder adding another timbre in the closing measures.
One should say that the musicians' performance was stylistically accurate, which suits the music performed. For example, Saunders sang with minimal vibrato, which some call "straight tone" that brings its own problems with intonation.
One of the most famous recitative-arias in western music concluded this set: "Thy Hand, Belinda – When I am laid in earth" (sung over a still another ground). Originally scored for four-part strings and continuo, this arrangement featured the trio of instrumentalists, with Ferrell on flauto traverso. Lovely and affecting.
Sonata in E minor (HWC 395) by Georg F. Handel (Germany, 1685-1759) is a four-movement trio sonata for two transverse flutes and harpsichord. The work in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement (often referred to as a "church sonata"). The two Largos featured nice interlacing of lines between the two flutes. To this listener both Allegros could have been a hair faster.
A very complete non-printable program came with the on-line concert, chock-full of information about the composers and their works as well as bios of the performers. It was here that I discovered that the Handel sonata could have been written by J.A. Hasse (Venice, 1699?-1783), whose spouse (Faustina Bordoni) sang regularly for Handel.*
From Handel's opera Acis and Galetea (1718) came the recitative "O thou didst know the pains" followed by the aria "As when the Dove." The aria includes pizzicato in the gamba at the outset, but also with some bowing. A nice flute obbligato part partnered well with the lilting soprano aria.
"Or al prato" (from the 1722 "serenata" Endimione) by J.C. Bach (Germany, 1735-82) kept all four musicians on the stage. This gentle piece was marked by attractive vocal and flute lines.
Sonata No. 5 (another "church sonata") by Johann C. Pepusch (German, 1667-1732) utilized a very independent gamba part, flute and harpsichord. Again, great interplay between the gamba and flute was a highlight.
"Dal dolor" from the 1788 opera La Clemenza di Scipione by J.C. Bach was next. Soprano Saunders negotiated the flowing lines nicely.
The Sonata in D minor, Op. 1, No.1 by Gottfried Finger (Moravia, 1656-1730) is known as a "chamber sonata," partially because the order of movements: Fast-Slow-Fast. The opening Allegro contained nice independent, imitative lines from flute and gamba. The middle Adagio provided fine contrast between the two outer movements.
Purcell's 1695 opera The Indian Queen was incomplete when the composer died. Two arias "I attempt from Love's sickness to fly" (voice, gamba and harpsichord) and "Why should men quarrel?" (with all four musicians) brought the evening to a close.
A couple of closing observations. The instrumentalists did not engage with the singer as much as they might have – more eye contact and more facial expression would have added to the optics. Furthermore, all of the performers looked into the camera at the end of each set, which seemed a bit awkward; perhaps they would consider taking a bow or at least remaining motionless until the camera turned off.
That being said, we must also say "Bravo" for bringing a solid performance of music that is too seldom performed these days. And bringing to our attention that all of these composers (all but one foreign born) were influential in the "Flowering of the Baroque" in England.