The Portland Baroque Shines Brightly

CanadaCanada Sheidt, Nicolai, Biber, Buxtehude, Weichlein, and Johann Christoph Bach, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Monica Huggett, artistic director and violin, Stephen Stubbs, chitarrone, Harry van der Kamp, bass, Vancouver Playhouse, 11.4.2014.

Scheidt: Canzon super intradam æthiopicam a 5
Buxtehude:’ Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron’ (Song of Solomon 2:1-3)
Nicolai: Sonata for three bass viols
Biber: Rosary Sonata for violin, No. 1
Weichlein: Sonata No. 3 in A minor from Encaenia Musices, Opus 1
Buxtehude: Sonata in D major for bass viol, BuxWV 268
Biber: ‘Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum’ (Psalm 127)
Johann Christoph Bach: ‘Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt’

We saw the Portland Baroque Orchestra here in a very fine St. John Passion in 2011, but it seemed to be far too long a time for this wonderful ensemble, locating in a city so close, to come back to us.  It is a cause for celebration that this situation has now been rectified and Portland Baroque will become a very regular visitor to Early Music Vancouver in the future. The driving force of this ensemble is of course celebrated violinist Monica Huggett, who brings a great enthusiasm and experience to authentic Baroque performance, having played with the seminal early instrument orchestras from the mid-1970’s: the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert, as well as being co-founder of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.  It is perhaps less well known that the violinist also was instrumental in pushing period performance to early romantic repertoire, leaving cherished recordings of Mozart, Boccherini, Mendelssohn and Schubert with her two chamber ensembles, Hausmusik and Trio Sonnerie. She has won Gramophone awards for her recordings of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (1997) and Biber’s violin sonatas (2002) and is currently artist in residence and artistic adviser to the Historical Performance Program at The Juilliard School as well as of the Irish Baroque Orchestra. When I briefly asked her what she made of all her past enterprise, all she said with a twinkle in her eye was, ‘Well, I am 60 now’, hinting that there was nothing that was remotely going to slow her down for the next decade or two.

Of the two other celebrated guests on this occasion, one was legendary bass Harry van der Kamp who can be remembered from classic vinyl days — when authentic performance was still in its infancy — in collaborations with Gustav Leonhardt and the like.  Yet after 40 years of performance, he still looks like young man.  Unfortunately, on this occasion, he was a man with a slight cold which meant that one of the works had to be excised from the programme.  But that hardly took away from the experience.  The other was lutenist Stephen Stubbs, founder of the widely-recorded Tragicomedia and permanent artistic co-director of the Boston Early Music Festival, who returned to his native Seattle under a decade ago to form Pacific MusicWorks to great acclaim.

When one talks about the size of an authentic baroque orchestra, the emphasis is always on the word ‘small’ and here, out of the ensemble’s complete contingent, we had in fact only eight instrumentalists: two violins, 4 viols, a chitaronne (long-necked lute) and an organ.  Yet what a lovely sound they produced: balanced, refined, warm and flexible.  Listening to the Portland Baroque really makes one realize how far we have come since the early days of cold, acerbic, emotionally-restrained authentic performance.  Here, all the Baroque performing conventions have long been internalized and emotional implications spring strongly and naturally from their playing.

This was particularly well illustrated in the opening ‘Canzon super intradam aethiopicam a 5’ by Samuel Sheidt (1587-1653) and in the ‘Sonata for 3 bass viols’ by Johann Michael Nicolai ((1629-1685).  The former ceremonial piece certainly showed us how well the two violins, Monica Huggett and Carla Moore, can work together — almost as one — to establish the rhythmic pull and expressive line of the piece.  When set alongside the warm and expressive response of the bottom end, the result came out not only as wonderfully refined and full but also as strikingly beautiful.    I was also particularly impressed with the rhythmic subtlety and flexibility in the articulation of the three viols in Nicolai’s piece. Here there was eloquence at all times, but also sensuality, finding a genuine poignancy in the more dirge-like episodes.

While Harry van der Kamp’s vocal production was somewhat constrained on this occasion, we still got a strong glimpse of his full bodied and resonant sound, featuring a seamless flow from top to bottom, coupled with very clear diction — the more so as we proceeded, I think. Never in doubt were his interpretive abilities, a searching intelligence that allows him to be revealing with the subtlest inflection of phrase.  In Buxtehude’s ‘Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron’, we certainly saw the singer’s clean articulation and his sense of nuance.  His resonant, burnished but absolutely clean bottom notes were always in evidence too.  Biber’s short ‘Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum’ featured the lovely flowing textures of his legato line and his fluency in changing dramatic postures, coupled with Monica Huggett’s remarkable ability to point and shape phrases.  But it was probably the closing ‘Wie bist du den, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt’ by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) that showed us just how complete a singer van der Kamp is: his remarkable range from top to bottom, again his silken, expansive legato line in the middle, and his ability to make leaps of intervals and florid runs so fluently without ever compromising musical direction.  One always noticed the telling contribution of Steven Stubb’s lute, every note meaningful, as well the sheer attack and life in Huggett’s playing.

Huggett continued to inspire in giving us a taste of her award-winning Biber Violin Sonatas: here the first of the composer’s Rosary sonatas.  After a brief critical discussion of the work’s religious associations to the Virgin Mary, Huggett tore into the virtuoso challenges of this work in a most spirited way, capturing its theatricality and sense of innovation and adventure.  The playing was most expressive, the violinist being able to change her intensity, motion and phrase shape so quickly and cunningly.  Great judgment was exhibited throughout, and the end was able to capture the nobility implied most successfully.  Huggett and Carla Moore also combined for Sonata No. 3 of Romanus Weichlein (1652-1706), a key disciple of Biber.  Here, the violins found a wide range of emotion in their parts, often achieving a wonderful sense of joy, nicely set against the warm bottom textures.  No one, including myself, quite anticipated the work’s ‘surprise’ ending.  The Buxtehude Sonata for bass viol, played by Josh Lee, was quite a tour-de-force as well, featuring much fleet and improvisational passage work for the solo viol, strikingly played and strongly accompanied by Stephen Stubbs and organist Jillon Stoppels Dupree.

I do not think there was anyone in the audience who felt this was other than an exceptional concert.  The Portland Baroque and their distinguished guests gave us something that was both cherishable and multi-splendoured, teaching us new things about how Baroque music can sound and reach our soul. We can hardly wait for their next visit.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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