Early Music Review

Carolina Baroque at Wake Forest: Rifling Through Handel's Trunk

April 24, 2004 - Winston-Salem, NC:

With the passing of the moribund remnants of Chapel Hill's "Golden Age" of the early music movement into oblivion, I have followed rumors and digital artifacts of the movement's seedlings elsewhere in the state with keen interest. While ECU's efforts have eluded me so far, reviewing some of the enterprising in-concert recordings of the Salisbury-based Carolina Baroque whetted my appetite for their April 24 appearance in WFU's Brendle Recital Hall. Two singers and four instrumentalists were sufficient to give a broad sampling of "Music for Two Sopranos and Chamber Music by Handel." The concert was a steal since it was free, and it included a pretty thorough program with good notes and most of the needed texts and translations.

The purely instrumental portion of the concert consisted of two trio sonatas - in B Minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (HWV.386b) and in B-flat, Op. 2, No. 3 (HWV.388). Both had four movements in the typical pattern of slow-fast-slow-fast. The basso continuo was realized by harpsichordist Susan Bates (a Salem College alumna) and cellist Gretchen Tracy. Tracy is the only baroque cello player I have ever seen who retains the modern pin on the instrument; most grip its body between their knees. Nevertheless there was nothing wanting in her phrasing or intonation. Bates' modern reproduction harpsichord had a fine mellow tone and a gorgeous lute stop. I am so accustomed to seeing John Pruett leading the viola section in regional ensembles that it seemed odd to find him playing baroque violin. His intonation and phrasing were superb. In these trio sonatas the violin often answered or sang in tight step with one of several recorders played by Music Director Dale Higbee. For the B Minor Sonata he used a soprano recorder sometimes called a "sixth flute," which sounds an octave higher than the baroque flute. This recorder made fine bird-like chirpings. A recorder sometimes called a "fourth flute" (because it sounds a fourth higher than the standard baroque alto recorder) was used for the B-flat Sonata. Higbee is the most undemonstrative recorder player I have ever seen: there was no hyper-dramatic twisting and turning for effect. Like Jascha Heifetz used to do, he just stood and delivered some of the most refined recorder playing I have heard live.*

With just Bates and Tracy providing the continuo support, soprano Marilyn Taylor, Chair of the NCSA's Voice Department, and soprano Teresa Radomski, Professor of Music at WFU, joined for the real treats of the concert, two Italian duets. It is too bad that the Italian texts were not given - only a translation was provided - because the unfamiliar words were set to some of the most recognizable tunes in all of music.

Duet No. 15 was composed July 1, 1741, and Duet No. 16 was composed July 3, 1741. The first stanza of Duet No. 15, "Quel fior che all'alba ride," HWV.192, is set to the tune used for "His yoke is easy" in Messiah while the second is the tune of "And He shall purify." Likewise, the first stanza of Duet No. 16, "No, di voi non vo'fidarmi," HWV.189, is the tune of "For unto us a child is born," while the second dances along to the music known as "All we like sheep." Messiah was composed between August 22 and September 14, 1741. Scholars assert that the composer seldom threw anything away. No wonder the oratorio was finished so rapidly!

The concert ended with the earliest work on the program, "Aminta e Fillide" ("Amyntas and Phyllis"), HWV.83, a cantata. According to the program notes, it "dates from 1707-08 when Handel was working in Rome under the patronage of the Marquis (later Prince) Ruspoli, who was active in the Arcadian Academy." While the full text was given, only about 60% of the cantata was performed. Taylor took the higher role of Aminta, and Radomski sang the relatively lower role of Fillide. It was a delight to hear the voices treated almost instrumentally, matching or echoing the recorders of Higbee and baroque violin of Pruett, which often "sang" on their own As befits the amorous "shepherds and shepherdesses" theme of the Academy, both vocalists and instrumentalists did many bird-like imitations, and there were beautiful trills from all concerned. Higbee began with a "fourth flute" (recorder), playing the cantata's first violin part, but in one stanza he used a larger instrument known as a "voice flute," more than a foot long, which has the same pitch and range as the baroque transverse flute.*

*Edited 5/6/04 to correct and clarify the voices of the recorders, with thanks to Maestro Higbee.