Tantalizing Singing and Playing in Pacific Baroque’s Handel and Bach

CanadaCanada  Bach, Handel: Yulia Van Doren (soprano), Douglas Williams (baritone), Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Weimann (conductor and continuo), Vancouver Playhouse, 18.3.2016. (GN)

Vancouver Playhouse © Jan Gates
Vancouver Playhouse © Jan Gates

Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 1, BWV 1066
Handel: Duetto da Camera: ‘Tacete, ohimé, tacete’, HWV 196; Apollo e Dafne, HWV 122

Pacific Baroque’s recent love affair with Handel started with Orlando in 2012, and moved this time to the early Apollo e Dafne (1709-10), an Italian cantata that just postdates his first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. The latter was also performed at the Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival of 2014. The obvious delight was the appearance of soprano Yulia van Doren and young bass-baritone Douglas Williams, who treated us to singing of the highest order. Conductor Alexander Weimann and the orchestra also outdid themselves, showing more natural synergy, line and colour than I have previously witnessed. This was noticeable throughout and particularly in Bach’s First Orchestral Suite, which began the concert.

As a prelude to the cantata, the vocal menu started with the duet ‘Tacete, ohimé, tacete’ (1709).   The opening, with cello and lute accompaniment, seemed to be a bit of a warm-up: I found the singing fairly cautious and the two voices did not balance impeccably. However, when the full orchestra entered, the singers gained greater natural fluidity and repose, and the balance improved markedly. One immediately became aware of the sheer warmth of Williams’ legato phrases while Ms Van Doren’s virtuoso lines emerged as freer and more accurate – evincing a more easeful communication between the two.

It was indeed a pleasure to witness Ms Van Doren’s prodigious talents, but Apollo e Dafne does not give her a very wide range of feelings to express: Dafne is one the more singularly standoffish female parts that Handel set. We mainly witnessed the singer’s disdain at Apollo’s advances, and it is Apollo who ended up with most of the show. Only in the soprano’s opening arias did we see her charm, enthusiasm and ability to spin out an enticingly-long cantabile line. The later postures are all icier, but they give an opportunity for virtuoso cut and thrust, which Van Doren excelled at, exhibiting stellar dynamic control and a vivid sense of style. Perhaps there was some variability: one could tell when her phrases fell naturally and her articulation had perfect poise; there were moments where I thought she might have pushed a little too quickly. Nonetheless, I would have also loved to see the soprano in more beguiling and tender contexts, but they just weren’t in this work.

Douglas Williams filled out his larger part as Apollo most impressively, always displaying a rich and flexible vocal fabric, beautifully smooth over a range that actually extended into his falsetto. His preparation was scrupulous. From his opening arias, one noticed Williams’ absolutely sure sense of line and his natural dramatic involvement. Everything in his singing seemed perfectly paced as he used all his wit, charm and protestation to woo Dafne. Obviously, Williams has a strong and beautiful voice and clear stage presence, but what impressed me most was his ability to keep his singing so spontaneous and direct in feeling. This was a tremendous success.

A key collaborator with Williams was the orchestra. They found a fine natural flow in the delicious music of ‘Come rosa in su la spina’, and the winds were particularly touching in the lovely closing aria, ‘Caria pianta, co’ miei pianti’. Maestro Weimann always achieved transparency in the orchestral accompaniment: the winds luminescent, with string playing tight yet expressive, and the solos of leader Chloe Myers clean and precise.

In the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 1, I was impressed with the fine ‘architecture’ of the sound; each tonal layer bearing the right relationship to the others. I have sometimes found the sound of Pacific Baroque slightly too impacted, generating resiliency of line without its full colour or vertical trajectory. Here, the strings had a more pristine balance and separation, with the right amount of air in the top, and the winds had elevation and suspension. There was an engaging natural flow to the Ouverture, finding the right shape and point at what I would regard as a comfortable opening tempo, but maintaining poise throughout the faster sections later. As we proceeded through the dances, the violin line was consistently well sprung, with telling phrasing. A few of these tempos might have been on the leisurely side, but the articulation was always rhythmically cogent and full of character. The winds had a few questionable moments but these were easily outweighed by their many delicious ones, increasingly so as the work progressed. The closing Passepied again had an enticing flow and breadth, and put a seal on the integration of the whole.

I found all of this quite inspiring.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com



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