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Historically informed performance: How does it translate into the real world?

TENET, the New York-based early-music group with an extraordinary vocal blend

Are we there yet?

That classic question was inevitable after a weekend packed with early-music concerts in New York – including the New York City Opera production of Rameau’s Pigmalion, the TENEbrae Pathway to Light concert of sacred music by Buxtehude, and The English Concert’s annual Handel opera at Carnegie Hall, this one being Rinaldo.

The performance of Baroque music has made such huge strides in recent decades that most of those old all-star recordings of Handel and Rameau from the 1970s and early ’80s (with mainstream singers like Janet Baker and fallible specialists such as Jean-Claude Malgoire) barely sound like these composers as we now know them. Performances were lumbering, elongated, monumental to a fault, and sung with an outsider’s level of comprehension. They’re not without artistry, but are mainly valuable as tangible point of rebellion for the early-music movement.

Recordings of music on period instruments have acted almost like performance research – seeing what’s possible in studios where acoustics could be fashioned to suit the size and nature of the sound envelope at hand. Few Historically-Informed Performance (HIP) pioneers have opened my ears more than Arthur Schoonderwoerd, whose recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos (and, most recently, the Mozart Requiem) played with ultra-small scale forces are radical but historically responsible departures from what we normally hear. Keep in mind that some Beethoven premieres were in ballrooms, not concert halls, which why the super-small scale makes sense: They showed what was the mind’s ear of Beethoven as he was writing.

But is that level of HIP-ness possible in the real world?

Ah, the real world. Old instruments were left behind because concert halls grew and musicians had to make the kind of sound that reaches the far balconies. When it opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall must’ve seemed huge; now it’s more of a medium-sized hall, at least by American standards. Also, in an increasingly noisy world, how much can audiences adjust their ears? The modern world must be met halfway.

How much that happened in the March 25 Rinaldo depended on where you were sitting in Carnegie Hall. Friends whose ears I trust said that from the first tier, the singing was pretty close to a Handelian ideal. What exactly is that? Voices that are able to move with audible ease through Olympic-gold-medal singing – slow, fast, animated, reflective, ornate, and pared down – in an endless array of configurations that perhaps only Handel’s super-inventive brain could devise. Bach’s vocal writing had certain perimeters built into the religious function of so much that he wrote, but Handel’s music freely moves between religious, pagan and mythological worlds, with all the range of imagery that implies. The ultimate test of a Handelian singer is whether they sound like they’re just keeping up with the vocal demands (in itself a great feat not often heard in earlier generations) or if their voices are liberated by the vocal challenges.

From the top tier (where I was, due to bad, last-minute planning), it was the former, in a B to B-plus vocal experience. The star was Iestyn Davies, the best countertenor out there right now. But, heard from the balcony, his voice popped in and out, veering between ‘solidly audible’ and ‘half audible’ – not good for taking in the whole of any given aria.

Most of the other singers – Joélle Harvey (Almirena), Jane Archibald (Armida), Sasha Cooke (Goffredo) and especially Jakub Józef Orliński (Eustazio) – accounted for themselves well, though Luca Pisaroni (Argante) got away with putting out a mass of non-specific sound that passed for coloratura. And while the (period) instrumentalists of The English Concert were easily audible, the kind of insights I usually hear in Baroque performances led by Harry Bicket didn’t reach the top balcony.

The question of meeting the modern world mattered much less on March 24, when New York City Opera performed at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The smallish stage felt pretty crowded for Rameau’s Pigmalion (the composer’s spelling, not mine), mainly because the modern choreography imposed upon the piece had legs and elbows flying about in ways that made you fear an in-performance accident.

Dance takes up half of Pigmalion – in terms of the sensibility that comes with this particular French Baroque genre (Rameau called the piece an acte de ballet) as well as in the score’s actual dance interludes. The plot simply stops for long periods while the dancers celebrate at length.

Using the much-missed New York Baroque Dance Company, whose narrow but refined range of movement suits the manner of this music, is not the only solution. (You may recall Mark Morris’s production of Rameau’s broad comedy Platée.) But it’s the most solid solution. The choreography in this Pigmalion – which was generalized classical ballet, with dancers stealing focus from everyone else onstage – was like watching a Marx Brothers movie with the soundtrack from a polite drawing-room comedy. Whatever other merits there were in the production tended to be downgraded by what was a clearly a bad decision.

The title role was sung by Thor Arbjornsson, whose upper range maintains the chest-voice sound that most tenors only have in their middle notes. But the voice and manner were green around the edges. The orchestral playing under Gil Rose was adequate, though lacking the color and buoyancy of a period-instrument group. For the record, the double-bill’s first half, Donizetti’s one-act Il Pigmalione, was more fully realized, though it’s basically a solo-voice cantata with a duet at the end when the statue comes alive.

Was there any unambivalently good news over that weekend? Well, these works are being done, and done seriously, even though the results weren’t great. And in one concert, all the right things came together: a March 24 collaboration by the vocal forces of TENET and the instrumentalists of The Sebastians, in a program dominated by a composer that even some serious early-music fans don’t have time for – Dieterich Buxtehude. His music can come off like J.S. Bach in a straitjacket, so scrupulously did he seek to do his religious duties and nothing but. However, that image was completely at odds with what unfolded at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, a setting where there’s no problem with this music meeting our century halfway – and maybe more. I was as happily surprised as anyone.

The Buxtehude pieces were motets, for lack of a better word, since the composer wrote them at a time and place where he had few if any vocal-composing duties. Particularly in Jesu, meine Freude (BuxWV 70) and Herr, wenn ich nur dich hab (BuxWV 38), the vocal lines floated with independent buoyancy from the instrumental writing, which was also full of interest. Of course, the case for this music was greatly helped by the superb (and possibly unique) vocal blend of sopranos Jolle Greenleaf and Molly Quinn.

Mixed in were instrumental works by others. Biber’s Mystery Sonata No. 9 sounds downright improvisational on a good day, and here it helped unlock one’s ears to similar qualities in Buxtehude’s small-scale vocal writing.

The other lesson of the day was to beware of applying the life-is-too-short test to semi-remembered composers of the past. I almost skipped this program because Buxtehude is such an un-sexy name. But life is long, and mine is richer for having heard this concert.



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