Egarr, Handel and Haydn offer a generous Venetian journey  

October 31, 2015 at 2:21 pm

By David Wright

Richard Egarr conducted the Handel and Haydn Society Friday night at Jordan Hall.

Richard Egarr led members of the Handel and Haydn Society in a Venetian program Friday night at Jordan Hall.

For a couple of hours on Friday night, one could imagine oneself sitting not in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall but under the glass chandeliers of a palazzo in Venice, savoring the musical inspirations of that city’s golden age of composition.

From his seat at the harpsichord or the organ, Richard Egarr led members of the Handel and Haydn Society in chamber music, alternately poetic and brilliant, by Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1583-1612) and his early-17th-century contemporaries.

That alternation was rapid indeed in these one-movement sonatas tailored to the short Venetian attention span, with its thirst for novelty and even the bizarre. Moods and meters tumbled over each other as each piece danced, lamented, orated, and seduced in quick succession.

Since the Handel and Haydn Society recently celebrated its 200th year as a local musical institution, it seemed appropriate to include in the program book a timeline showing that the Venetian masters’ heyday coincided exactly with the earliest events in Boston’s history. It was a reminder of a time when, in musical and other matters, the phrase “a world away” actually meant something.

A hallmark of Venetian instrumental music of that period was the sound of three violins, moving together in chords or scampering after each other in a musical game of tag, an effect that Egarr, who was generous all evening with comments from the stage, described as “a sort of seventeenth-century Andrews Sisters.”

The violin-playing sisters on this occasion were Handel and Haydn’s concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky and her colleagues Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata, who coaxed sounds both silky and aggressive from their early-model instruments. They performed standing up, and it was amusing to watch a sort of wave move physically through the group as a musical phrase passed from one player to the next.

This imitative style also brought out the individual characteristics of each violinist’s playing, with Ogata usually delivering the phrases straight-no-chaser, Martinson inflecting them more, and Nosky adding fire and capriciousness. Individualism was tempered, however, by the players’ keen ear for tonal blend and balance.

Joining the violinists onstage were the continuo group consisting of keyboardist Egarr and theorbo (a fantastically long-necked lute) player Paul Morton, and, at various times, cellist Guy Fishman, trombonist Erik Schmalz, and Andrew Schwartz playing the dulcian, an early type of bassoon. The latter three musicians also stepped forward at times with their own virtuoso parts. Whatever their role, their outstanding musicianship was evident throughout. 

As for the composers performed, the intricate textures and subtle shifts of mood in Gabreli’s Canzona a 6 and Sonata for Three Violins left no doubt why his reputation has endured for four centuries.  But one could also hear why the lively and melodious music of his younger contemporaries was a hit in its day.

For example, the charming Sonata in Echo for Three Violins by Biagio Marini featured Nosky in a graceful onstage solo interrupted by faint and fainter echoes from Martinson offstage right and Ogata somewhere else in the building.  (For this piece only, an upstage door was opened, revealing a vibraphone literally waiting in the wings.)

Giovanni Battista Fontana was represented by a Sonata for Three Violins that showed both fluid craftsmanship and a Venetian flair for the dramatic. After marginalizing the third violin for most of the piece, Fontana gave it a marvelously extended and varied solo near the end; violinist Ogata seized her moment in the sun with imagination and panache.

 Egarr’s only individual turn of the evening came in the Toccata settima by Michelangelo Rossi, a lyrical and fiery piece for harpsichord solo evidently inspired by that Ur-virtuoso of the keyboard, Girolamo Frescobaldi.  Egarr brought off its legato chords, harmonic twists, and blazing scales in style.

The program’s most constant presence, however, was Dario Castello, whose compositions alternated with the other composers’ works throughout the evening.  Little is known about Castello other than that he published two collections of sonatas in 1621 and 1629 that sold well enough to go back for additional printings. Hearing this attractive and imaginative music on Friday night, it was easy to understand why.

Castello’s music stood out particularly for colorful dialogues between the violins and individual bass instruments. For example, the Sonata decima quarta a 4 from Book II (i.e., the fourteenth sonata in Castello’s second collection, with four solo parts) cast the cello as not just a strong partner to the three violins but an expressive and florid soloist in its own right; on Friday cellist Fishman stepped boldly and effectively into the role.

The golden tone and expressive phrasing of Schmalz’s trombone blended surprisingly well with the strings and continuo in Castello’s Sonata undecima a 3 from Book II; here and elsewhere, the trombonist also proved capable of matching the violinists riff for blazing riff.

Castello provided Schwartz with spotlight moments on the dulcian in works such as the Sonata decima a 3 from Book II, where his dignified, noble tone was a Sarastro-like foil to the flighty violins, and the Sonata nona a 3 from Book II, where his scorching solo brought thoughts not of the Andrews Sisters but of Charlie Parker.

Egarr even humorously credited Castello with inventing the string quartet when he substituted a viola for one of the three violins in the Sonata decima sesta for Bowed Instruments from Book II, creating a solo group of two violins, viola and cello. While one would be unlikely to draw a straight line from Castello to Joseph Haydn, the Venetian composer was definitely on to something; on Friday, Martinson’s viola satisfyingly filled the gap in sonority between the high, edgy Baroque violins and the mellow bass instruments.

That fill-in role more typically fell to the continuo players, particularly the keyboardist, and on Friday Egarr not only elicited vigorous and expressive performances from the other players but sensitively did his part in support, notably in the program’s delightful closing number, Castello’s Sonata decima terza a 4 from Book II. 

In this “thirteenth” sonata, the thirteenth work on the program on this night before Halloween, Egarr’s organ made the music glow from within like a smiling jack-o-lantern.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday.  handelandhaydn.org617-266-3605.

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