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Handel Outduels Bach

Los Angeles
First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica
01/20/2001 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Trio Sonata in G for flute & violin, BWV 1038
Giovanni Zamboni: Sonata No. 9 in C minor for archlute
François Couperin: Le Rossignol en-Amour
George Frideric Handel: Trio Sonata in B minor for flute & violin, Op. 2, No. 1
George Frideric Handel: Sonata in G minor for violin & basso continuo, Op. 1, No. 6
François Couperin: Le Carillon de Cithère
Johann Sebastian Bach: Trio Sonata in G for flute & violin, BWV 1039

Musica Angelica (Stephen Schultz, flute; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Joanna Blendulf, cello; Katherine Shao, harpsichord; Michael Eagan, archlute).

Handel outdueled Bach last weekend when Musica Angelica kicked off its five-concert season with an almost perfectly palindromic program of chamber music featuring early music superstars from Northern California.

With a heavy arsenal of solo suites and sonatas, Bach’s output in this genre is invariably given the nod over Handel’s more lightweight assortment. But Saturday night, with Philharmonia Baroque stalwarts Stephen Schultz and Elizabeth Blumenstock in the starring roles, and the gently bright acoustics of Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church enlivened by the enthusiasm of a delighted audience, entertainment-oriented Handel gunned down his more introspective, younger (by a few days) contemporary.

This was particularly evident in the Violin Sonata in G minor, in which Blumenstock used her extraordinary virtuosity and a wonderfully free sense of embellishment to take the audience on an exhilarating musical journey. Embellishment can be sometimes be merely self-serving, but working within Handel’s simple structural plan, Blumenstock’s flights of fantasy illuminated Handel’s lovely lines and restrained harmonic scheme without once becoming gratuitous. Steven Schultz brought the B minor Trio Sonata equally alive with his incredibly soft and magical nuances of sound and melody. The famous Largo, with its warbling coos and sighs, was a miracle.

In contrast to the overtly dramatic Handel, the Bach trio sonatas which bookended the concert seemed merely pleasant. In fact, the opening Trio Sonata in G for flute & violin, BWV 1038, despite Blumenstock’s whole-step tuning down of her two top strings, seemed downright bland.

Bach’s Trio Sonata in G for flute & violin, BWV 1039, a re-working of the well-known BWV 1027 viola da gamba sonata, was more successful. When played by gamba and harpsichord, the latter’s melodic lines can get lost. But dividing the melody lines between flute and violin made for a refreshingly extrovert, coherent reading, even if the mystery of the solo gamba version was somewhat obscured. The third movement, Adagio e piano, was drop dead gorgeous. Both the Bach and the Handel benefited from superb playing by harpsichordist Shao and cellist Blendulf, with Eagan’s archlute adding a subtly sumptuous quality to the continuo proceedings.

When I asked Blumenstock after the concert why she had embellished the Handel so liberally and the Bach not at all, she repeated the conventional wisdom (I’ve used it myself) that Bach never wrote an extraneous note nor, by implication, left out a needed one. The audience, at any rate, had no problem with the Bach; at the concert’s end, they responded with a warm round of applause.

Most times, when people (hockey fans, anyway) ask, “Is there a Zamboni in the house?” they’re referring to the glamorous ice resurfacing machine. Saturday night, the Zamboni in question, named Giovanni, was so obscure that he’s not in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians. Instead of living and dying, according to Eagan this Zamboni only “flourished” (1718). But the ten-minute Sonata Eagan played was a gem of subtlety and reflection, and it gave L.A.’s leading archlutenist a chance to demonstrate his restrained mastery over an instrument which most of us, like dragons and dungeons, have only read about.

The only disappointments of the evening were two harpsichord works by François Couperin, played in instrumental arrangements either sanctioned or implied by the composer himself. Despite their obvious relish and beautiful individual playing, Schultz and Shao missed the requisite center of focus that causes audiences to fall under this composer’s dreamy spell. And the use of Tibetan temple bells, which Blumenstock played offstage in Le Carillon de Cithère, though it was imaginative turned out clumsy.

Not that Couperin needs be up-to-date in the scholarship department to be rewarding. As proved by a new INA historical release from the Centre de Musique Baroque in Versailles, featuring Maurice Duruflé, Wilhelm Kempff (playing Le Carillon de Cithère), Ruggero Gerlin, Aimée van der Wiele (playing Le Rossignol en-Amour and Les Baricades mistérieuses), André Marchal, Scott Ross and others, Couperin is very much a matter of the heart. The growth of authentic performance practice during the thirty years these recordings were made (1947-1977) is evident, but in every one, no matter how archaic the performance, there is an obvious connection between Couperin’s music and French soul that is truly profound. Distributed in the U.S. by Harmonia Mundi, and not to be missed!

Under the leadership of Eagan, Musica Angelica in its many configurations has become Los Angeles’ premiere early music ensemble. With Long Beach Opera, it has performed Peri’s Euridice, Purcell’s The Indian Queen and Charpentier’s Le malade imaginaire . With Los Angeles Opera, it has performed Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse. Musica Angelica appears often on the J. Paul Getty Museum’s various concert series including Handel’s Acis e Galatea, several programs from the French Renaissance, and a fully-staged performance of Monteverdi’s Il ballo delle ingrate.

For the record, Stephen Schultz played an Andreas Glatt copy of G.A. Rottenburgh (Belgium, 1973), Elizabeth Blumenstock a Desiderio Quercetani copy of Stradivarius (1995), Joanna Blendulf a Timothy Johnson copy of Nicolò Gagliano, Naples, 1785 (Bloomington, Indiana), Katherine Shao a lovely Curtis Berak instrument after 18th century French models (Los Angeles, 1992), and Michael Eagan a Reid Galbraith copy of J.C. Hoffmann (Duns Tew, England, 1975).

Laurence Vittes



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