Musica Antiqua Köln: Baroque Ensemble Presents Polished Program of Italian 18th Century Music at McCarter Theatre
There are many angles to performing 18th century music the harmonic sequences can lend themselves to a steady even rhythm, while the melodic lines sometimes call for diversity and variety in their virtuosity. Musica Antiqua Köln, an ensemble of strings dedicated to the performance of Baroque and early classical music, brought a slightly heavy-handed and Germanic approach to a program of early to mid-18th century Italian music last Monday at McCarter Theatre. Joined by soprano Nancy Argenta and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, the 13-member orchestra, affirmatively led by Reinhard Goebel, presented music by Caldara, Pergolesi, Albinoni, and Vivaldi.
These four composers, although writing in different geographical regions, lived in the same fifty-year period, with many similar characteristics in their music. There were many melodic sequences and much repetition in the three sinfonias by Caldara and Albinoni, and Musica Antiqua presented these musical patterns with precision and clear playing, but little dynamic variety. There are almost no instrumental solos in these works, so any textural diversity comes through finessing phrases and creating dynamic contrast. Musica Antiqua was able to taper some of the phrases in Albinoni's Sinfonia in C major. More variety in the sound was found in the G minor Sinfonia of Albinoni, which also provided the most musical delicacy of the three purely instrumental works played.
The two singers featured were both well versed in music of this period. The more mesmerizing of the two, Ms. Stutzmann, unfortunately chose not to perform what would have been one of the more interesting works of the concert: Giovanni Pergolesi's Salve Regina. However, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, an extended work for soprano, contralto, strings, and basso continuo, presented Ms. Stutzmann as an innovative and unusual singer, with Ms. Argenta as stylistically accurate. Where Ms. Argenta was clean and smooth, Ms. Stutzmann milked each line with color, holding back at the right times in suspensions to accentuate the tension so prevalent in this style of music. Argenta added color in the upper registers, contrasting well with the richness of Ms. Stutzmann's well-phrased and well-ornamented lower notes. The two singers contrasted in presentation style as well, with Ms. Argenta all business and accuracy, and Ms. Stutzmann giving the impression that she had many more musical secrets to divulge.
Ms. Argenta was featured in Vivaldi's motet In Furore Giustissimae Irae, an appeal for mercy amid a "fury of righteous wrath." In Ms. Argenta's singing, the stylistic emphasis was on the word "furore," and she was indeed full of fury when necessary, then subsequently full of mercy. Ms. Argenta was always controlled in this motet, with coloratura that was clean without being mechanical. Ms. Argenta was easily able to change style for the middle recitative. Especially effective in the second Air was the emphasis on the shortened second beat in the meter, with the voice answered by the strings.
Musica Antiqua grew out of the Cologne Musikhochschule, and is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. The ensemble ranks with I Musici and I Solisti in international reputation and renown, and their performance at McCarter last week showed their superb command of their specialized period of repertoire.