With a program of “Virtuoso Strings” on Saturday, May 30, at Pasadena’s Knox Presbyterian Church, Musica Angelica commenced the close of its 2008/2009 season with a penultimate performance featuring works by William Lawes, Henry Purcell, Johann Jakob Froberger, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Johann Pachelbel, Johann Rosenmüller, John Wilson, and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. It was an especially nice treat to hear some of the core musicians of the Musica Angelica group in a concert featuring only them.
Violinists Janet Strauss and Neli Nikolaeva blended superbly and were able to match every detail and nuance of the music as they courted our attention with their sublime sonic artistry. Violists Suzanna Giordano-Gignac and Adriana Zoppo were solid individually and in ensemble. Versatile Giordano-Gignac also played violin commendably. Leif Woodward is becoming well-known as a baroque cellist in Southern California for his performance of early music, and his deliberate rhythmic lines clocked the group capably through the evening.
Native Angeleno Ian Pritchard is distinguished by his international awards for harpsichord and organ performance and his scholarly pursuit of early music. His artful solo harpsichord “Meditation” by Froberger was subtle in manner, contemplative, and emotionally moving.
Wilson’s “Prelude for Theorbo” was played beautifully by Daniel Zuluaga on this difficult-to-manage instrument. He fully captured the attention of the audience with this delightful prelude and demonstrated why he is so well-known throughout the area. The theorbo would have projected better had he moved to the front of the stage, but his performance was still among the most memorable of the evening.
After tuning to 415 Hz, the concert opened with Lawes’ “Suite No. 4 in C” for two violins, cello, and organ. The Fantazia was subdued, and the Almaine and Galliard had little dynamic contrast and struggled to find a solid groove. The two Fantasias by Purcell that followed picked up the mood considerably, the first “Three Parts in d minor,” and the second “Upon One Note in F.” The slow, full-bodied legato passages were gentle and warm, and the dances were graceful and lively. Later, Purcell’s “Pavan” invited the body to join in, and “Three Parts on a Ground” found the strings trading riffs and rips and generating visceral rhythmic effects.
Pachelbel’s “Partie a 5 in G” and “Partie IV in e minor” from “Musicalische Ergotzung” were well done. In the first Partie, Woodward delivered the bass line artfully, capturing an engaging tempo and gracefully stepping and leaping with a beautiful rounded attack and decay. Nikolaeva also shined as the timbre of her instrument and her sound technique gracefully supported her elegant artistry.
Revered violinist Schmelzer’s “Sonata Sexta” from “Sonatae Unarum Fidium” were seminal in the development of the emerging virtuosic violin technique. Strauss nimbly navigated the sonic ridges and cliffs of Schmelzer’s Alpine slalom. Her understanding of the early baroque was compelling as she combined an authentic approach with thoughtful phrasing and ornamentation. In other works, Giordano-Gignac marvelously captured the lightness of Schmelzer’s “Fechtschule,” and in Rosenmuller’s “Sonata XI a 5,” Strauss again played flawlessly as the tempo changed from adagio to presto in rapid alternation.
The evening closed with Biber’s “Pars III in A minor” from “Mensa Sonora” and “Sonata V” from “Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum.” The full ensemble of strings, theorbo, and harpsichord managed a style that stewed this “table music,” vis-à-vis an attention to counterpoint salted with dissonance, and finished with a sublime legato over intimately entangled melodies. The ensemble found its full voice with Biber, and left us satisfied with their authentic echo of the baroque.
Overall, the music was most satisfying and the artists were impressive in ensemble as well as in their respective spotlights. Program notes about the instrumental artists would have been helpful toward understanding the soloists, and the programmatic “musical chairs” among the strings created a diffusion of leadership that diminished the dynamic contrasts and ensemble precision.
The new venue swallowed the organ, theorbo, and harpsichord – and nearly devoured the cello too. The transepts sucked up the energy of the continuo instruments from the rear of the stage to rob them of their audio presence. Fortunately, the violins and violas pierced the room more directly and so remained distinctly heard.
The stage was dim and the house was bright, there seemed to be no stage manager, and perhaps had the customary request to turn off cell phones been made, that phone may not have rung and created one truly modern experience inconceivable to the baroque composers of 400 years past.