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Wistful Sweetness

January 27, 2009

San Francisco Early Music Society

As a theme for a recital, "the spread of an infectious Italian Baroque style" has maybe a little too much going for it to be genuinely helpful. As an anchor for Ensemble Mirable's recent program (titled "Influenza Italiana"), under the auspices of the San Francisco Early Music Society, it did some useful work, setting a couple of fetching ground basses in the program's earlier Germanic music alongside Marco Uccellini's famous Bergamasca, and later pairing Handel with his London operatic rival Giovanni Bononcini. In the end, though, the program — hastily relocated Saturday night to Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater when some repairs at the scheduled venue, St. John's Presbyterian Church, weren't done in time — felt and sounded more like a concert-length collection of some of the ensemble's favorites.

You could do worse. Ensemble Mirable — countertenor Jay White, violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Katherine Kyme, cellist/gambist Joanna Blendulf, guitarist Kevin Cooper, and harpsichordist JungHae Kim — has a formidable fund of repertoire knowledge to draw on. The music was uniformly delightful, but with one exception it was probably new to nearly everyone there. That exception was the Uccellini Aria sopra "La Bergamasca," a rocking variation set on an eight-note ground bass (really, four notes twice over) published in 1642.

The continuo players had maximum fun with the ground. By the end, the performance was grooving in a way that was less "historical" than timelessly cool. (Cooper's little body-slaps to his instrument toward the end were a blast.) Meanwhile, the violins vied flashily with one another, or sometimes took turns (one repeating the bass' associated tune in one octave or the other, the other embroidering around the edges).

Cunningly, the Uccellini didn't start the concert; it opened the second half. On the first came, among other things, two of its Germanic successors. The opener was a 1674 sonata by Dietrich Becker, ending with variations on a ground close kin to Uccellini's. There followed a Buxtehude sonata (BuxWV 263) graced with not one but two grounds: one in the major mode on four descending notes, the other on the minor on a similar but longer pattern.

The performances were stylish and full of fire, especially in the Buxtehude, where Blumenstock tore through lines of bariolage and double-stops, shedding sparks. (Blendulf, playing a seven-string viol as she did for all the German music on the program, was scarcely less impressive.) If Kyme in her two solo numbers seemed more reserved, it was largely because the music gave her fewer openings. A sonata by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714) proved to be a long sequence of mostly tiny dance movements, charming but not especially distinctive. Johann Rosenmüller's Sonata III (1682) was another matter: a terse but mercurial piece in the old Italian manner, played with Kyme's customary elegance and no mean flair.

In Suave ConcordThe program's other instrumental work was a Handel trio sonata (HWV 388, probably better known as Op. 5/7). By the side of the earlier works on the program, all drawing in one way or another on the fantasy-rich 17th-century tradition, the Handel might have struck some listeners as rational to the point of blandness, others as something of a relief after the earlier music's pervasive fidgetiness. For me the suave concord of the music was a delight. So was the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) violinistic dueling of Blumenstock and Kyme, which more than once threatened to make one or the other of the pair dissolve into giggles.

For the remainder of the program, countertenor White joined the instrumentalists. What the printed program announced as a pair of Handel arias at the end of the first half turned out to be only one: "Domerò la tua fierezza" (I shall subdue your pride) from Giulio Cesare, with its preceding recitative. On the second half came a Bononcini cantata, Care luci dal mio beni (Dear eyes of my beloved), and then, in a most arresting close to the entire concert, "Sovente il sole" (Often the sun) from Vivaldi's serenata Andromeda liberata. White, a veteran of eight seasons as a member of Chanticleer, is a singer new to me. He has a firm, well-controlled alto voice, with a fairly tight and fast vibrato and an appealing ring. He got around the passagework of the Handel and of the Bononcini's second (and last) aria with impressive ease. You could not always be quite confident of his landing exactly on pitch, but what adjustments had to be made he did swiftly and unobtrusively.

Both of these fast arias had unison violin parts — an uncomfortable situation when there are only two violinists, especially in the acoustical dryness of the Julia Morgan Theater. Still, White's vigor and panache carried both pieces handily. More memorable for me, though, was the first aria of the Bononcini, a slowish, wistful thing of Handelian sweetness. (On hearing it, you can well believe that Bononcini gave Handel serious competition.)

Finer still, and more surprising, was the Vivaldi, a long, slow, elaborately textured piece of nature-painting, sung with marvelous control and shaping and caressingly accompanied. It was an unexpected end to this variegated program, but a most inspired one.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.