Emmanuelle Haïm Leads a Memorable Performance of Three Baroque Masters


Purcell, Bach, Pergolesi: Laura Claycomb (soprano), Christophe Dumaux (countertenor), Los Angeles Philharmonic / Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 17.11.2017. (DLD)

Purcell – Suite from The Fairy Queen

Bach – Suite No.3 in D major BWV1068

PergolesiStabat mater

The evolution of Baroque music in traditional venues is a phenomenon I’ve witnessed over the course of my own concert patronage. The modern instrumental/symphonic Baroque has largely given way to a period-sympathetic version. I once heard two orchestras, three full SATB choirs and doubled soloists in a Messiah in the mid-1980s in San Francisco. The abandonment of those bloated practices has refined and strengthened current performances of ‘ancient’ music in the best possible ways.

In slightly more than a week’s time, the Walt Disney Concert Hall was visited by two of the bigger players in period-proper Baroque performance: William Christie with Les Arts Florissants, followed by Emmanuelle Haïm, artistic director and conductor of the orchestra and chorus of Le Concert d’Astrée. Appearances by Europe Galante, The Baroque Brass and Les Violons du Roy are due later in the Los Angeles Philharmonic season. Flowering arts indeed!

This concert, however, featured players on modern instruments from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They opened with a selection from the incidental music to Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was first performed in London just shy of the 100-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s play. When played in its musical entirety, Purcell’s third ‘dramatick opera’ runs well over two hours, though much of its music could be accurately characterized as fill.

The selection here featured highlights from the larger work, and they were well chosen – a couple of hornpipes, a charming, rhythmic jig-saw puzzle known as ‘Monkey’s Dance’, and three beautifully sung pieces by two absolutely superb singers, soprano Laura Claycomb and countertenor Christophe Dumaux. The musical choices were well considered and coherent in order and presentation: the sections fit well with one another, and were elegantly performed and sung.

Bach’s Suite No.3 in D major followed, and it was Bach as writ: tightly constructed music, meticulously integrated both structurally and intellectually. The ceremonial opening contained as much pomp and circumstance as any Elgar, the fugue whizzed by with near perfect execution, Martin Chalifour’s virtuosic bow and finger work caused many to gaze at one another in wonderment and, finally, the orchestral cohesion was a miracle in and of itself. I would have preferred a little improvisational riffing in the repeats in the second movement, the famous ‘Air on a G String’ (a title that Bach himself was never to have known). The last three movements danced the whole enterprise to a sprightly conclusion. I’m grateful for any Bach played by the LA Philharmonic, and the ensemble ably demonstrated its ability to adjust to the music’s time and place.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, a tragically short-lived composer of the late Baroque, is best known for his two long-form masterpieces, the secular opera buffa, La serva padrona (1733) and his sacred masterpiece, Stabat mater (1736). It was the latter, written in the last weeks of his life, that closed the concert. The text derives from a poetic sequence of 60 lines written in the thirteenth century and later proscribed by the Council of Trent, and eventually restored to the missal in 1727. It is broken into 20 three-line stanzas, and though the textual content and sentiment concern the unrelenting pain and suffering of Mary as witness to the crucifixion of her son, Pergolesi musically describes a wide range of human responses to the event: within the confines of the composition, there are solos and duets and even a few implied dance forms that suggest a degree of solace.

This is music in which conductor Haïm excels. The Pergolesi is human drama in liturgical robes, and this is how she conducted it: a tragedy of human dimensions. In addition to its technical precision, the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought warmth and emotion without excess. The Baroque progressions, devices and tropes used to tell this story of the pain of a mother – the descending dissonant sequences; the open, minor cadences; chromaticism that inflates the grief and loss – are miracles in their own right.

The two vocal soloists were beautifully matched. Laura Claycomb has long amazed audiences with her understated but perceivable emotional states and differing styles and. as the voice of Mary’s soul, she made the tragedy palpable. Her dramatic range and depth are unsurpassed today. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux sang the part of the alternate voice, and to call him ‘spectacular’ is holding back. There was no disappointment here. Perhaps one day we will hear both Pergolesi masterworks in one concert: ‘Pergolesi, Composer of The Sacred and the Profane’.

As an encore, Claycomb and Dumaux sang the heart-wrenching final duet, ‘pur ti miro’, from Monteverdi’s last opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, a fitting close to a memorable concert.

 Douglas Dutton

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