Going to hear a musical group you’ve never heard before always entails a risk, but the risk tends to be less with Baroque music, which—if it is played at all—is usually played at a fairly high standard. The risks in this case are all small ones: that the period-instrument performance will be rigorously academic in mode, or that you will be lulled into tepid enjoyment by the familiar strains of familiar music, or something innocuous like that.
Arcangelo, I am happy to say, transcends even these small risks by taking bigger ones. This young British company, conducted by the harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen, played at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall last night, and I suspect I am not the only newcomer to their audience who felt that the evening went from good to great. What made the difference was Arcangelo’s willingness to venture out of the world of pure music and into the realm of staged song.
The Bach violin concerto which opened the concert was fine, if slightly willful in its sedulous avoidance of any tinge of romantic inflection (but can unadorned Bach ever be a bad thing)? Next up, though, we had a cantata from a different Bach: Johann Christoph, a cousin of Johann Sebastian’s father, who had chosen to arrange a passage from the Song of Songs in a movingly simple plain-chant sort of setting. The soprano for this performance, Katherine Watson, was so terrific that I actively missed her when we moved on to the purely instrumental Handel concerto that closed the first half, even though Handel may well be my favorite composer of all.
Imagine my delight, then, when the piece after the intermission turned out to be a full performance of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne cantata, featuring not only the wonderful Watson as the nymph Daphne, but also an equally fantastic Russian baritone, Nikolay Borchev, as the proudly aggressive god who was chasing her. Somebody (my suspicions lie with Jonathan Cohen) had gone to a great deal of trouble to stage this unstaged mini-opera in a way that brought out both its meaning and its emotional depth. The acting skills of Watson and Borchev helped, too. When she staunchly defended her virginity, she was shrill and pinched; when he boasted about his masculine prowess, he was sickeningly self-confident and vain. You didn’t have to understand a word of Italian to follow the plot. And when, after tracking her around the circumference of the stage (where she had been cowering behind the bass player), Apollo suddenly grabbed Daphne by the shoulders, he was left holding a sprig of greenery as she fleetly disappeared—a lovely piece of stage magic that utterly complemented the intense beauty of the voices. I understood, as if for the first time, why Handel’s vocal music needs to have so many repeats: because the line of sung melody is so gorgeously expressive that we want to hear it again and again.