Ring in the new

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 20, 2009

Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey returned to the BSO in an unusual (for the BSO) Baroque/classical program that included ballet music from Mozart's opera Idomeneo, Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2, and the first complete BSO performance of all three of Handel's Water Music suites. Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie is a Baroque expert who doesn't see a contradiction between 18th-century performance practices and a big orchestral sound or shapely phrasing. In these lively, engaging performances, the BSO gave its best shot at period style. Wispelwey's tone ranged between the refined and the rough-hewn. (A friend compared some of his digging-in to Jimi Hendrix.) John Ferrillo played an eloquent oboe solo and horn players James Sommerville and Jonathan Menkis set off sparks in the famous fanfare in the First Suite. Even more surprising was the enchanting duet in the Third Suite for recorder (Roy Sansom) and theorbo (Chris Henriksen), instruments not often heard with the BSO. The brilliant trumpets of the Second Suite ended the program.

Between the Friday afternoon and the Saturday evening BSO concerts, Sommerville came to the rescue of the Cantata Singers. US Homeland Security Immigration Services didn't process in time the visa for the British horn player engaged for Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor and Horn. So at the last minute Sommerville agreed to play this demanding part, one of the two or three greatest pieces ever written for horn. He gave a spectacular performance. The Serenade begins and ends with a mysterious call on a valveless natural horn; I don't think I'll ever hear it so flawlessly or expressively played. Britten is widely regarded as the 20th-century's best poem setter, and in this masterpiece, he uses short poems that move from sunset to evening and into night, uniting charming 17th-century poet Charles Cotton with sumptuous Tennyson, harrowing Blake ("The Sick Rose"), glittering Ben Jonson, death-haunted Keats, and a bone-chilling 15th-century Scottish dirge. Britten is one of the few composers who can make iambic pentameter not sound mechanical or sing-song. The outstanding young tenor Michael Slattery managed not to imitate Peter Pears, for whom the piece was written; he understands the poems and conveyed not only meaning but nuance. As did conductor David Hoose and his splendid orchestra. A magnificent performance of a very great work.

This Britten concert began with another magnificent performance: violist Roger Tapping (late of the Takács Quartet) in the solemn, piercing Lachrymae, Britten's "reflections" on a despairing John Dowland love song. (Shortly before he died, Britten orchestrated for strings his original piano accompaniment.) Later, Sommerville and Slattery returned for the tender "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal," another Tennyson setting that Britten wrote for the Serenade but then (wisely) decided not to include. Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, elevated on a small platform near John Grimes's ominous timpani, gave a stirring rendition of one of Britten's last major pieces, the dramatic cantata Phaedra, a setting of passages from Robert Lowell's hair-raising yet stately translation of Racine's tragedy about Phaedra's obsession with her stepson, Hippolytus. Hoose and the orchestra matched Baty in precision and intensity. This latest entry in the Cantata Singers' Britten Season also included two enchanting choral pieces: Five Flower Songs (settings of Herrick, Crabbe, Clare, and an anonymous ballad) and Rejoice in the Lamb, passages from the inspired lunatic Christopher Smart that included the irresistible "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry."

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