Apollo’s Fire floats the ‘Splendour of London’ to Ohio

United StatesUnited States ‘Splendour of London’ – Purcell, Handel: Soloists, Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrel (conductor). St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, 12.10.2023. (MSJ)

Jeannette Sorrell conducting Apollo’s Fire © Apollo’s Fire

PurcellCelebrate this Festival (selections); King Arthur (selections); Dido & Aeneas (selections); Oedipus (selection); Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary
HandelWater Music (selections); Zadok the Priest

Apollo’s Singers: Josefien Stoppelenburg, Andréa Walker, Elora Kares, Ashlee Foreman (sopranos), Rhianna Cockrell (mezzo-soprano), Jacob Perry (tenor), Edward Vogel (baritone)

Though Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel were the greatest English composers of the two generations who spanned the shift from the 1600s to the 1700s, they are rarely featured side-by-side on programs. The reason is that while both composers were brilliant geniuses, in some ways they were polar opposites. Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire seized upon that contrast and underlined it for the opening concert of the baroque orchestra’s thirty-second season.

Whether writing music in a major key or minor, Purcell tended to push to extremes of brilliance that make his work stark and awe-inspiring. I have found that to be the case too often, even in some of his most intimate pieces. One doesn’t cozy up to Purcell, because he keeps you at arm’s length. He may move you and bring tears to your eyes, but there remains something forbidding and fierce at the heart of works like Dido & Aeneas or Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.

Sorrell emphasized this wild hauteur, even going so far as to find a singer, the remarkable Dutch soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, with the rare sonorous depth of resonance to make Dido’s final lament sound truly sepulchral. Even the fun ‘Come Away, Fellow Sailors’, also from Dido, with the polished tenor Jacob Perry cutting delightfully loose, was aggressively jaunty. Ashlee Foreman was poignant in the aria ‘Music for a While’ from Oedipus, and the chromatic intensity of the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary brought the first half of the concert to an austere end.

The comparative warmth of Handel in the second half was all the more vivid because of the contrast with the sometimes ascetic Purcell. The only disappointment from Handel’s Water Music was that it was a selection of only about half the piece. Granted, complete performances of the suites are not artistically necessary and usually fail to land satisfactorily. But after hearing this selection, I would have to say that if anyone can pull off a complete Water Music, it is Jeannette Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire.

There is a very specific reason for that. I recently heard a popular classical music critic in a surprisingly vulnerable video where he talked about the ten most popular classical works that he simply doesn’t get. Water Music was one of them, a piece that struck him as a string of unexceptional country dances which gain nothing from presentation as a group. He has a fair point: Water Music veers quite close to the pop music of the early 1700s, as opposed to art music. The suites are like a pop album that collects hit singles, completely unlike an album that is shaped as an artwork, such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or David Bowie’s Blackstar.

For the most part, Water Music is ‘just’ a string of dance tunes. But, and this is an important exception, almost every one of those dances is a gem. The way to make the collection work is to dive into the essence of each dance and animate it from within, almost as if making the dances a succession of exquisite moments. That is exactly what Sorrell did with her selections from Water Music, finding in each piece a tiny cosmos of humor (the Bourrée from the F major suite), brazen brilliance (the opening Allegro of the D major suite) or even quite moving pathos (the second menuet from the G major suite). When performed with such characterization, the dances are endlessly appealing.

The concert ended with a stirring rendition of Zadok the Priest, broadly visionary until it erupted in the high spirits that carry it to its peak. The vocalists of Apollo’s Singers were as vibrant here as they had been brooding in the Funeral Music. Orchestral balances were exquisite throughout the concert, and all the singers and orchestral players gave the ensemble’s thirty-second season a stirring launch.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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