The beautiful and intimate Chapel of St. John’s Lutheran Church was the setting for Carolina Baroque‘s lovely program of Baroque instrumental music that spanned the stylistic gamut of the era, from the early Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli to the French and German composers of the High Baroque. The performers, led by Music Director and ensemble founder Dale Higbee (soprano recorders), were John Pruett and Susan Perkins (baroque violins), Marian Wilson (baroque viola), Holly Maurer (viola da gamba), and Susan Bates (harpsichord). The ensemble’s missions of outreach and education were readily apparent in the brief explanations of instruments and music from the stage which complemented the program notes. The group has an impressive discography, found at their website.

Period instruments were the string quartet, here of baroque violins and violas, characterized by bridges less sharply arched than their modern counterparts and strung under less tension, and the bass viola da gamba that substituted for the cello. The “viol” (for short) is literally a string instrument “of the leg,” is held between the legs like a cello without an endpin, and has frets, resembling the vihuela de mano. The sound of the viol is totally different from that of modern strings. The timbre is more nasal, covered, muted, and rich, and blends beautifully with instruments of its own family and others. The viol is bowed underhandedly, or in the “German” style, as one sees string bassists play. Mauer explained how holding the bow this way takes the weight of the arm off the strings. All the string bows were shorter and of a different shape than modern bows. All instruments were tuned to low pitch (A 415).

Wooden soprano recorders in the keys of C and B-flat were Baroque-style instruments, close replicas of historical prototypes. The harpsichord, a single-manual with two eight-foot stops and a buffing mechanism known as a “lute” or “harp” stop, was built for Higbee in 1986 by Richard Kingston. Lavishly decorated with North Carolina flowers on the soundboard and a painting of The Peaceable Kingdom inspired by Isaiah 11:6-9, the instrument adds a stunning visual as well as sonorous component to their programming.

The program opened with a single-movement Sonata for recorder, two violins and continuo by Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), a work originally written for three violins and continuo. The work’s interest consisted of motivic exchanges and sequencing devices shared among the three treble instruments, and the gorgeous blending of string, wind, and keyboard timbres. Next were two movements from a suite of five-part Dances by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), a carefully measured Galliard where there was a mishap in motivic exchange, and a Courante in straight-forward triple meter without the metric ambiguity often found in the dance. The harpsichord’s lute stop provided a softer accompaniment to the dynamic shadings and embellishments beautifully executed by Higbee.

Bates was featured in two sets of harpsichord pieces. In the first half were three pieces from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) Pièces de Clavecin of 1724, “Le Rappel des Oiseaux” (“The Call of the Birds”), “Tambourin” from the suite in E minor, and “La Poule” (“The Hen”) from the suite in G minor. Rameau’s works were influenced by François Couperin and Jesuit scientist Louis-Bertrand Castel, the latter having claimed that he introduced Rameau to the “birdsongs noted in Kircher” (in Musurgia universalis, 1650), especially the hen and the nightingale. In “Le Rappel des Oiseaux,” the merry and clever cacophony of incessant chirpers emerge as mordents, arpeggiated harmonies (stile brisé), cascading thirds, the texture massing at cadential points. Bates shaped the music with agogic accents, her organ background evident in her very legato phrasing.  The spirited “Tambourin,” a French character piece simulating a Provençal folkdance in 2/4 meter accompanied by pipe and tabor, featured a restricted melodic range, square phrasing and phrase repetitions against a drone. The character of “La Poule” emerged as the comic pecking of repeated eighth notes and chords with thirty-second-note flourishes, transposed to different pitch levels. Here the articulation was crisper, a wonderful rendition of the barnyard animal.

Closing the first half was a Recorder Concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello (1684-1750), a work that J.S. Bach transcribed around 1717 for harpsichord. The ensemble work here was a little disappointing, perhaps made difficult by the seating of two of the string players in a second row behind the first violinist and gambist. The work consisted of three movements, an Andante characterized by two-note “sigh” motives, an Adagio whose tempo settled after the first couple of beats, and a Presto movement with outstanding articulation in the recorder.

After intermission came an enchanting performance of instrumental music from Henry Purcell’s (1659-95) The Faerie Queen. The 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth is being celebrated this year, and the music from this adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is some of the finest music Purcell ever composed for the stage. We heard the Prelude from the First Music and Rondeau from the Second Music, both played by ensemble without recorder. From Act III, the “Dance for the Fairies” included the recorder, and the Chaconne from Act V – “Dance for a Chinese Man and Woman,” said to be homage to Queen Mary’s famous china collection – was in triple meter with the metric accent displaced to beat two.

Bates excelled with the second set of harpsichord works, this time from François Couperin’s (1688-1713) second book of Pièces de Clavecin (1713). The cryptic “Les Baricades Mistérieuses” was Couperin’s magnificent demonstration of how the instrument could be made to sustain sound. Two other character pieces followed. “Les Bergeries,” (“Pastorals”) featured a higher register and the generic pastoral sounds of a peaceable kingdom (my eyes went to the lid of the harpsichord), while “Le Moucheron” (“The Gnat”), like Rameau’s “La Poule,” was an exercise in comic genius, the persistent and repetitive phrases clearly representative of the ever-present pest.

The last work on the program was Handel’s (1685-1759) Recorder Concerto in B-flat, HWV 301, originally composed for oboe. By this time the humidity in the room had risen considerably. Instruments had to be retuned, and the first movement restarted as the soprano recorder (in B-flat) at first refused to speak. The work’s four-movement form, Adagio, Allegro, Siciliana, and Vivace, resembled a sonata more than a concerto, and the playing here was impressive.

Carolina Baroque exists largely because of the driving force of one man, Dale Higbee, who has shepherded the ensemble through an extended series of distinguished concerts. To hear him play the recorder with his incomparably beautiful, rounded tone is to understand why the Italians referred to the instrument as “flauto dolce” (“sweet flute”). We all benefit enormously from his dedication to the highest standards of early music making, and look forward to hearing many more fine concerts to come.