Exalted Singing in Handel and Purcell at the Close of the 2019 Vancouver Bach Festival

CanadaCanada Vancouver Bach Festival [4 & 5] – Handel, Corelli, Locke, Blow, Purcell: Christ Church Cathedral and Chan Center, Vancouver, 7/9.8.2019. (GN)

Soprano Amanda Forsythe with Pacific MusicWorks directed by Stephen Stubbs © Jan Gates

7th August  – Christ Church Cathedral
Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Pacific MusicWorks / Stephen Stubbs (director)

Handel – ‘Agrippina condotta a morire’ HWV110, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ HWV157, ‘Armida abbandonata’ HWV105, ‘Col partir la bella Clori’ HWV77, Trio Sonata Op.5 No.4 HWV399
Corelli – Trio Sonata Op.4 No.1

9th August – Chan Centre
Suzie LeBlanc and Dorothee Mields (sopranos), Alex Potter and Nicolas Burns (altos), Samuel Boden and Jonathan Quick (tenors), Sumner Thompson (baritone), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Pacific Baroque Orchestra / Alexander Weimann (director),

Locke – Excerpts from The Tempest
BlowWelcome, Every Guest
PurcellHail, Bright Cecilia

The first week of the 2019 EMV Bach Festival saw some magnificent singing, but the second week was even finer. Purcell’s Hail, Bright Cecilia placed a memorable seal on this series of 14 concerts, bringing together many of the celebrated singers from previous outings and featuring inspirational playing from the Pacific Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann. Two days earlier, soprano Amanda Forsythe was equally stunning in dramatic works of early Handel, accompanied most artfully by Stephen Stubbs and the instrumentalists of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks.

The final concert, which was an absolute delight, began with excepts from Matthew Locke’s The Tempest. These traversals yielded possibly the most integrated and beautiful sound I have yet heard from the orchestra, combining a lovely glow and refinement with natural rhythmic energy and dramatic shape. The orchestra communicated fluently, without any of the tonal hardness and over-control one might have noted in the past. The playing of the strings and winds was enticing, full of sensitive shadings, and the trumpets and timpani put on a most exacting display in their dramatic forays. Sopranos Suzie LeBlanc and Dorothee Mields, fresh off a concert of Palestrina and Monteverdi, combined here for a delightful rendering of John Blow’s Welcome, Every Guest. LeBlanc’s pristine sense of style has long been established, but what was intriguing was how much vocal versatility and delight Mields offers: her long legato lines and sculpted shape in more serious arias usually get the attention.

Purcell’s Hail, Bright Cecilia again found the orchestra in top-notch form. Maestro Weimann was characteristically disciplined but also impressed in his probing of the sensitive strains of melancholy. The dynamics of the wind lines were particularly well-judged. The two sopranos joined in a chorus of eight singers (two as ripieno); they offered further delights on their own in the aria ‘Thou tun’st this World below’.

The distinguished contribution from the male singers was evident immediately in ‘Hark, each tree its silence breaks’, where Matthew Brook and Alex Potter sent things off with fine naturalistic hues. The virtuosity and character in Brook’s bass-baritone was one of the highlights, affirmed in ‘Wondrous Machine!’ and in ‘Let these amongst themselves contest’ with baritone Sumner Thompson. Potter’s wonderfully-spun alto lines were much in evidence in ‘The Airy Violin’, and his collaboration with young tenor Samuel Boden proved enticing in ‘In vain the Am’rous flute’. Boden showed considerably more of himself here than in the opening concert, with fine timbre, range and sensitivity, though his lyrical/dramatic line still seems on the short side. The choral contribution was as good as one expected, and extended beyond vocal strength and blend. The extraordinary lightness and balance of texture in ‘Soul of the World’ was noteworthy, while the combination of lyrical strength and rhythmic intensity made the closing chorus add up memorably. The orchestra backed the singers every step of the way.

Alexander Weimann, Soloists, and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra © Jan Gates

The concert two days earlier was Early Music Vancouver’s fourth visit from soprano Amanda Forsythe, and her third featuring Handel. Her debut outing here was in Handel’s first oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, in 2014 (review), and she has increasingly learned to put her virtuoso technique at the service of the narrative and vocal requirements of the text. While there is always brilliance, tonal beauty and a savouring of emotional extremes, her singing now achieves such dramatic coherence and integration that the technique never draws attention to itself.

Forsythe carried on with more early Handel, starting with the secular cantata ‘Agrippina condotta a morire’, a prelude to the full opera Agrippina. The wonderfully melodramatic text – comprised of both recitatives and arias – depicts the Roman empress on the way to her execution, ordered by her son, the emperor Nero, whom she had originally helped put on the throne. In this text of ‘abandonment’, the soprano did a wonderful job in assimilating complex emotional contours and vivid mood changes while maintaining a particularly clean, concentrated line. One is hardly spared virtuoso vocal challenges from the outset, nor the need for the strongest dramatic punctuations, yet Forsythe managed to find all the tensile strength and detail to illuminate the piece, mixing agility, volatility and passion with a more serene contemplation. The result was wonderfully assured and radiant and, at the same time, conscientious and probing.

The two shorter cantatas, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and ‘Armida abbandonata’, again featured enviably honed detailing but gave even more prominence to Forsythe’s ability to build a gradated lyrical line – vocally warm and coaxing. The aria ‘Ah! Crudele, e pur ten’ vai’ from the latter cantata was very compelling in this respect, as was the lovely rendering of ‘Col partir la bella Clori’ at the end of the first half. Forsythe could at times reach out to a fully operatic dramatic involvement while, at others, treat the text as a storyteller would, almost assuming a balladic posture at a distance.

Lutenist Stephen Stubbs has taken this music to heart for many decades and, alongside a sterling contribution from Pacific MusicWorks, his absorption of the idiom showed everywhere – faithful, knowing but never obtrusive. Of the two purely instrumental pieces, both Trio Sonatas, the Corelli moved with wonderful ease and lightness, almost like spring water. The Handel was an embodiment of natural musicality and warmth with the rustic dance not far away. I should mention the elegant contribution of violinist Tekla Cunningham.

Geoffrey Newman

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

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