A Weekend Spanning Five Centuries of (Mostly) English Music

United StatesUnited States Purcell, Handel, Tippett, Britten: 17 & 18.11.2018. (BJ)


Lenneke Ruiten (soprano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia.

Purcell – Suite from The Fairy Queen
Handel Music for the Royal Fireworks; Il delirio amoroso, HWV99


Heath Quartet, Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Tippett – Quartet No.5
Purcell Chacony in G minor, Z730, arr. Britten
Britten – Quartet No.2, Op.36

In her local debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Emmanuelle Haïm made it clear by the end of the evening why she is a conductor widely admired (including by me) as an exponent of the baroque repertoire.

The beginning of the evening had been rather less successful. I was not aware that Purcell had written a tambourine concerto, but that was what the performance of a suite from The Fairy Queen seemed designed to demonstrate was the case. A late addition to the original score, that not exactly unobtrusive instrument dominated the texture to such a degree that it was next to impossible for the rest of the orchestra to make much of an impression on the ear, and the fact that the string parts were somewhat scrappily played did not help.

After this, however, I am happy to report that things rapidly improved. The orchestra came together much more convincingly in Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was done with appealing zest and a stylish avoidance of excessive vibrato. And then, after intermission, conductor, singer, and orchestra all showed themselves in the best possible light.

The cantata that filled the second half of the program, Il delirio amoroso (The Delirium of Love), is the cause of the parenthetical ‘Mostly’ in the heading to this review. Handel spent the bulk of his career as a British citizen, but he wrote this impressive and too rarely heard work at the age of 22 when he was living in Italy, several years before he took up residence in England.

The performance of it that Haïm led was a model of stylistic insight, of good judgment in the choice of tempos, and of lucid balance. The young Dutch soloist Lenneke Ruiten had, in the Fairy Queen excerpts, displayed a penchant for swaying around that precluded the production of any consistent tone or cohesive line. But in several sections of this inventive and already characteristic work she actually stood still, and those moments proved that she possesses a soprano voice of attractive timbre, along with a highly developed technique and a good feeling for the meaning of words. I hope she may at some point in her career come to realize that all of her best singing is done when she resists the temptation to flounce about.

Curiously uncredited in the program books, the distinguished French recorder player Sébastien Marq played that instrument’s substantial obbligato parts with commanding technique and effervescent wit, helping to bring the concert to a conclusion of much charm.

On the afternoon of the following day, the Heath Quartet’s debut Philadelphia Chamber Music Society appearance offered exemplary performances of three important and purely English works, prefaced by an informative spoken introduction by Thomas Schuttenhelm. In the 16 years since the group’s formation, first violinist Oliver Heath, violist Gary Pomeroy, and cellist Chris Murray have achieved an immaculate balance of lustrous individual tone with a cohesive ensemble sound, and on this occasion, standing in for second violinist Sara Wolstenholme (who is on maternity leave), Natalie Klouda blended impeccably with the various talents of her three colleagues.

Michael Tippett’s Fifth (and last) String Quartet, a tautly argued and searchingly lyrical work, opened the program, and I was immediately impressed by Chris Murray’s cello tone. At once richly resonant and subtly inflected, it reminded me that Tippett wrote the quartet (in his mid-80s) for the now sadly disbanded Lindsay String Quartet, and I wondered whether the similarly sumptuous tone of  that ensemble’s superb cellist, Bernard Gregor-Smith, might have provided a model for Murray’s contribution to this powerful performance.

Tippett’s friend and colleague Benjamin Britten had what might be called one and a half spots on the program, his arrangement of Purcell’s monumental Chacony being followed by the second of his own three string quartets, which ends with an equally ambitious Chacony. Essentially identical with the passacaglia, this was a form especially dear to Britten’s heart, as it was also for Shostakovich, and their shared preoccupation with it was perhaps partly to be credited for the close personal and professional sympathy that burgeoned in the two men’s late years. The Heath Quartet had the measure both of this movement’s profound eloquence and of the more mercurial qualities of the two movements that precede it.

Bernard Jacobson

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