Thunder and Lightning

Rebekah Ahrendt on December 9, 2008
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra appeared in a different guise Saturday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church. Under the baton of guest conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini, the musicians of the orchestra demonstrated their versatility in a program that focused on the concerto grosso and included special guest star soprano Marta Almajano. Alessandrini is best known as the founder of Concerto Italiano, and has long specialized in Italian music of the 17th and 18th centuries. His conducting is vigorous, muscular, and rather controlling, resulting in toe-tapping, breast-thumping readings. Every detail was shaded toward the extreme: from vigorous Allegros to soupy Adagios, and from stomping (rather than walking) bass lines to transparent violin filigree. The featured instrumental soloists of the evening were violinists Lisa Weiss and Carla Moore and cellist Tanya Tomkins. All three ably demonstrated their ability to express the conductor's intentions while maintaining their distinctive sounds. Weiss' nimble fingers flew through the complicated figurations of an extremely fast Allegro movement of Corelli's famous Christmas Concerto Op. 6, No. 8. Tomkins' command of the spiccato technique (a manner of bouncing the bow to produce very short and articulate sounds) was most impressive, while Moore's beautiful tone added to many an Adagio. The dialogue between all three in each of the concerti grossi on the program was simply delightful. Spanish soprano Marta Almajano was certainly the discovery of the evening for me. Clad in a lovely periwinkle and black gown, Almajano first sang Alessandro Scarlatti's Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore (Pastoral cantata for the birth of Our Lord), the other holiday-themed work on the program. This charming cantata heralds the birth of Jesus in true pastoral fashion, replete with rocking rhythms, drone effects from the strings, and sweet, simple vocal lines. Alessandrini's muscular conducting was possibly a bit too heavy for this piece, and Almajano appeared somewhat uncomfortable at first.

Gripping Rendition

All doubts were dispelled, however, by her fabulous performance of Handel's dramatic cantata Agrippina condotta a morire (Agrippina led to her death). Almajano's dark, luscious voice and superior acting skills perfectly matched the many demands of this emotional tour de force. Agrippina's lengthy monologue explores the inner conflict of a mother whose own terrible son (Nero) has condemned her to death. Innocent, she desires justice; outraged, she wishes Nero dead; horrified by her own wish, she resigns herself to die in his place — but swears that her shade will haunt him forever. Perhaps the most wrenching moment of the cantata is a fragmentary arioso where Agrippina questions her ability to wish for the death of the son she bore. The passage occurs twice. At first, Almajano and the orchestra performed it in a subdued, restrained, and tender manner; the second time around, all stops were let out in a torrent of conflict. The effect was stunning. Almajano demonstrated that her vocal skills were on a par with her superior expression in the extremely melismatic thunder-and-lightning aria Orrida, oscura l'etra si renda (Horrid and dark the heavens rend themselves asunder). It was a bit unfortunate, though, that Alessandrini insisted on conducting the recitatives. With a continuo group as accomplished as Philharmonia Baroque's (including David Tayler on theorbo, Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord, and cellist Tomkins), and a singer as fine as Almajano, I did not see the purpose. In some cases, the result was a bit confusing, as the singer sometimes seemed to desire more time than Alessandrini gave her. The continuo dutifully followed the conductor, who was not always together with Almajano. The extreme choices of Alessandrini at times produced remarkable results, as in the liberal conception of time and space in Corelli's Christmas Concerto or the snappy hemiolas of Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco's Concerto a quattro. But at other times I felt they were oppressive. Never before have I heard the bass players of Philharmonia sound so aggressive and militaristic. I suppose this is a tribute to the musicians' versatility and skill in bringing forth the desires of a guest conductor.