Daniels and Sampson in Lustrous Baroque Masterpieces

United StatesUnited States Pergolesi, Händel, Durante: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), David Daniels (countertenor), Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan (conductor), SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco. 4.10.2013 (HS)

Pergolesi: Sinfonia from L’Olympiade
Händel: “Io t’abbraccio” and “Dove sei” from Rodelinda; “Da tempeste” and “Caro/Bella” from Giulio Cesare
Durante: Concerto for Strings No. 2 in G minor
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater


Nothing quite approaches the sound of two perfectly matched human voices entwined in music that values purity and subtlety. Soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor David Daniels delivered precisely that in a radiant, graceful concert focusing on the music of Pergolesi and Händel. Nicholas McGegan conducted the Philharmonia Baroque strings in the ensemble’s opening concerts of the season, heard Friday at SFJAZZCenter’s auditorium.

(This season, while the orchestra’s San Francisco home—Herbst Hall—undergoes remodeling, its concert dates are in the room built for jazz, but its acoustics seem to do well for classical music. Clean and precise, if a bit dry, the hall created the sensation of a well-upholstered drawing room for this music—and that of Boyce, Bach and Vivaldi in later events.)

Liquid phrasing and a generous serving of heart leavened Sampson and Daniels’ musical precision. Sampson, a regular at English National Opera and Glyndebourne, deployed a creamy, soft-edged sound, rendering accurate coloratura with polished edges and excelling especially in ravishing phrases. Daniels offered his usual astonishingly rich sound—so natural it is, that it seems as if every male singer ought to sound like that. Few countertenors can achieve his clarity, integrity of sound and musical values.

With McGegan shaping the ensemble’s lean sound into gentle undulations, the singers could relax and let their voices emerge without pushing. This was especially gratifying in Stabat Mater, Pergolesi’s final work before his untimely death in 1836 at the age of 26. Each of the 23 verses gets its own cameo of music, solos interspersed with duets in 12 movements. Sampson’s high point came with a breathtaking pianissimo rendering of the Vidit suum” verse “She saw her sweet son dying….”, a miracle of quiet compassion. Daniels brought striking intensity to “Fac ut portem” (“Grant that I may bear the death of Christ…”).

But the duets captivated my ears. The qualities of the two singers’ voices melded seamlessly as if from different registers of the same instrument, never more ravishingly than in the final “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies…”) and the remarkably ecstatic “Amen” that followed.

The excerpts from Händel’s operas Rodelinda and Giulio Cesare also had memorable duets: the serenely paced “Io t’abbraccio” (in which Rodelinda and Bertarido desperately declare their love), and even more so the final rapturous “Più amiable beltà” for Cleopatra and Giulio, with its expressively shaped harmonies.

McGegan framed these with more Pergolesi—an opening Sinfonia from his opera L’Olympiade, played with the Philharmonia’s trademark  sprightly and urgent style—and a charming Concerto for Strings by Francesco Durante, Pergolesi’s teacher.

Harvey Steiman