This was supposed to be the end of the line. After more than 20 years of some of the most creative and eclectic programming anywhere, Mallarmé Chamber Players had previously announced that the final concert of their existence would take place on May 6, 2007. But then the ensemble accepted an engagement for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild at the NC Museum of Art on June 10.* And then, an anonymous donor with deep pockets stepped forward to fund at least another entire year of this marvelous organization. Although this news had become known during the season, it was still a nice moment to hear it announced before the start of their annual gala.

In addition to the many admirable musical traits of Mallarmé’s concerts, they also employ the unique (in our time) practice of holding some of their programs in private homes and other interesting venues. This concert, called “The Best of Baroque,” took place at Kirby Horton Hall at the entrance to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. What this lovely space lacks in good sight lines it more than makes up in rustic ambience and a very lively acoustic.

A program with a “Best of Baroque” come-on could have surely gone with the usual suspects that make up the surfeit of “Greatest Hits of 1721” type recordings, and everyone would still have gone home happy and tapping their feet. But on this occasion we had a varied selection of lesser-known yet first-rate compositions. We first heard a viola duo featuring Yoram Youngerman and Jonathan Bagg. Jean-Marie Leclair was a French master who was often compared to Arcangelo Corelli. The work played was the fifth sonata from a set of six that was filled with typical, but captivating, string writing. The two violists had their own distinctive styles with Youngerman having a deeper, more plaintive sound.

The Paris Quartets of Georg Philipp Telemann, while certainly not rarities, are underplayed gems that fortunately for us have seen some air time in concerts during the past year. The featured flutist was Joanna Sisk-Purvis, a recent arrival rom Los Angeles. Joining her was Elaine Funaro, harpsichord, Nathan Leyland, cello, and Yoram Youngerman switch hitting on the violin. This work is an amalgam of  Italian style with French-titled movements and sounds like a mixture of Rameau and Handel.
This combination of instruments sounded particularly alive and vibrant in the high-ceilinged, natural wood Horton Hall. There were several virtuosic passages which all players handled with exquisite skill, but the most surprising movement was “Modéré,” coming at the very end. If I didn’t know who wrote this, I would not have flinched if someone had said it was by Schumann or some other early Romantic composer. Lush, very non-Baroque harmonies flavored this moving finale of one of Telemann’s masterpieces.

After a brief pause, cellist Leyland came out all by his lonesome to perform the Prelude and Allemande from Bach’s sixth Cello Suite. This Prelude is by far the most difficult single movement of all of the suites, but Leyland played it with great skill, sensitivity and a rich, enticing tone. The Allemande is no walk-on-the-beach either, and he played the numerous double and triple stops with great clarity and pinpoint intonation.

The featured work of the evening was a singular work of J.S. Bach. He wrote few secular cantatas, and Non sa che sia dolore, S.209, is the only one with an Italian text. Penelope Jensen, soprano, and Richard Luby, violin, joined all the other previously-listed instrumentalists in this rarely heard work. The opening Sinfonia is a mature work that inexplicably is not played by itself more often. It has a slight resemblance to his famous Double Violin Concerto and the small ensemble was really rockin’ on this one. The remainder of the work consists of two sets of recitatives and arias. Jensen, as usual, was in fine form with her pure, expressive soprano voice. Although I speak neither German nor Italian, it did seem quite unusual to hear Bach sung with an Italian text.

The 2006-7 season of the Mallarmé Chamber Players finished up with champagne and toasts for many more years of innovative chamber music programs.

*See our calendar for details.