Last night Boston Baroque presented several stunning, yet rarely performed gems of French Baroque music: Charpentier's "Te Deum" and two works by Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Though the original occasion for which the piece was composed is unknown, there seemed little doubt, as Music Director Martin Pearlman asserted, that the "Te Deum" was a hymn celebrating a military success; the high-energy prelude abounds with timpani, brass fanfares, and clear-cut militaristic rhythms, all of which are rearticulated throughout the piece. As a unit, the chorus possessed sterling fluidity. They maintained and expanded upon both the orchestra's contagious enthusiasm from the prelude, and the humble atmosphere imparted by soprano Amanda Forsythe in her tender solo. Much of the text is sung by smaller ensembles of 1-4 singers, and is either preceded or followed up by the same text sung by the chorus. This fleshing out of the textual and musical content created riveting contrasts of intimacy and power.
The night's second piece, Rameau's "Suite for Orchestra," was a pastiche of striking orchestral excerpts from several of Rameau's operas.The Suite began with the overture to "Zais," which depicts the elements (earth, wind, water, and fire) and their tumultuous attempts to coexist. The cohesion required for the virtuosic runs that stream relentlessly throughout the overture was, at times, a little lacking, but the ensemble's tireless energy and illustrative dynamic surges made the stormy overture a success all the same.
The protracted rhythms and warm buzz of the all-string Menuets from "Platee" were mesmerizing after the whirlwind overture. The following Menuets from "Zoroastre" were equally enchanting, but this time the charm stemmed from the sweet, lilting piccolo melody that soared above the rest of the texture. Closing the Suite was a Chaconne from "Les Indes Galantes." In this vibrant dance piece, the orchestra switched adroitly between elegant string melodies and majestically trilling brass riffs. It was easy to see the challenges Rameau's choreographer faced, as the Chaconne was constantly shifting in tempo and mood; Pearlman and the orchestra, however, navigated the changes gracefully and ended the suite with intensity.
After an intermission, Boston Baroque featured Rameau's small-scale, one-act opera, "La Guirlande." The sweet and simple love story is really too short and succinctly told for any real character development to unfold, but the small cast (of only three soloists) gave outstanding performances. Rameau's text-painting with the orchestral and vocal music is what really gives this opera life. The repartee between piccolo, violin, and soprano as Zelide sings of the woods and nightingale was one such example. The audience was transported to the pastoral scene as the three instruments echoed each other's trills and mimicked the playful warbling of the nightingale.
Lawrence Wiliford's raw tone and technical agility conveyed the guilty lover, Myrtil, brilliantly. His haute-contre (high tenor) voice possessed a very natural and emotive quality and his physical and emotional envelopment in such a short role was refreshing. He played the opera's climactic scene out humorously; as Zelide reveals the withered garland, Wiliford turned "La Guirlande" into a heart-warming comedy with his priceless gasp of disbelief at what is, in actuality, his own crime.
Soprano Amanda Forsythe expressed Zelide's faithful and forgiving nature with her refined vocal color. Her tone was rich and focused throughout her range and in the brief part she displayed her vocal flexibility with gushing legato lines, quick and precise ornamentation, and impeccable intonation.
Forsythe and Wiliford faced their coloratura-laden final duets without strain or struggle. Even as the pair was joined by the chorus in their last verse, the cascading coloratura held tightly together. The rhythmic contredanse that followed concluded the opera on an upbeat and appropriately festive note.
The period instruments and playing techniques assisted the ensemble in emanating their authentic, one-of-a-kind sound, but it would be little without the diligence and passion of Boston Baroque's skilled musicians and music director. Beyond leading the musicians swiftly through a night of challenging music, conductor and Music Director Martin Pearlman added a personal touch to the program by orienting the audience between each of the night's features. Pearlman's guiding commentary, as well as his guiding hand at the podium were much appreciated by the audience.
One performance of Boston Baroque's French Baroque-themed concert on Sunday, 15 February. For information on ticketing contact the Jordan Hall's box office at 617.585.1260.