Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Paradise Found program notes

To whet your appetite for "Paradise Found" -- Sept 22 in Bryan, Sept 23 in Houston, and Sept 26 in Alexandria, LA -- here are my notes on this program. Looking forward to seeing many of you at this special set of concerts, featuring the amazing French-Italian soprano CĂ©line Ricci.

"Paradise Found" takes us on a journey comparable to that of Milton's masterpiece, from a Scarlatti cantata’s despairing tones to the heavenly rapture of Handel’s Gloria. In between these vocal “bookends,” instrumental works from the same era illustrate how some of the finest Baroque composers shuttled seamlessly between these emotional extremes, in music that is at once affecting and transformative.

Like his father Alessandro Scarlatti and his contemporaries Handel and Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti composed dozens of Italian cantatas for the delectation of aristocratic and royal patrons. Though the genre’s heyday had passed, this master of the newfangled keyboard sonata retained a keen interest in the cantata across a long and productive career. The attraction appears to have been both practical and aesthetic: a genre eminently suited to the intimate cultural pleasures of the Portuguese and Spanish courts (which Scarlatti served from 1719 to the end of his life), the cantata also offered the opportunity for formal experimentation and great subtlety in expression.

Metastasio’s libretto for Pur nel sonno suggests a date of composition sometime during Scarlatti’s tenure at the court of Philip V and Maria Barbara in Madrid. This great poet, the leading opera librettist of the 18th century, had begun his literary career in Rome’s Arcadian Academy, from whose pastoral verse he borrowed stock characters for this cantata. Its “story” is delivered from the unlucky suitor’s point of view, and from the outset, the mood is dark: an Introduzione in two parts—something one might expect only at the head of a full-length opera or oratorio—is by turns aggressive and pensive. The sinewy first aria introduces a world-weary lover, one rejected by the unattainable Phyllis but unable to forget her, even in sleep; his passion remains sadly one-sided. A highly dramatic recitative follows, as the protagonist’s dream veers from lovely visions to fear and shame. His final realization—that he’ll never be free again—is given full vent in a tour-de-force concluding aria with abundant vocal fireworks.

Rameau’s harpsichord music comprises both original works and transcriptions of orchestral dances and character pieces from his popular stage works. The Air pour les Bostangis and the Gavotte are both examples of the latter type. Excerpts from Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (1735), the first of these charming pieces accompanies a dance by gardeners of the seraglio (the “bostangis”), whose proprieter (the “Gracious Turk” of Act I) is but one of Rameau’s colorful “Indians.” Les Tendres Plaintes and La Joyeuse, by contrast, are more idiomatically conceived for the harpsichord. These two gems encapsulate, within the gently recursive French rondeau form, the two emotional poles of this evening’s program: from “tender complaints” to joy.

Couperin’s La Sultane would also seem, by virtue of its title, to transport us to the Orient; but this is a decidedly Parisian sultan, not an exotic harem-keeper. One of several works Couperin wrote as a kind of French response to the wildly popular Italian trio sonata, La Sultane features unusually full scoring—for two violins, two violas da gamba, and continuo—and a classic sequence of sections in contrasting tempi. Its grandiose and powerful beginning leads to a faster fugue, whose primary theme is nearly identical to that of the opening movement. A tender air and sections in contrasting quicker meters lighten the mood considerably toward the end, as all four instruments engage in concerto-like figuration.

The setting of the Gloria now attributed to Handel came to the world’s attention in 2001. Newspapers heralded its discovery as a major event, despite lingering doubts about its authenticity. If Handel wrote it, he surely did so between 1706 and 1708 in Rome, where such a blatantly theatrical solo setting of this liturgical text would have been well received by patrons who loved opera but were frequently denied it because of recurring papal prohibitions. Its seven discrete movements follow the typical divisions of the “Gloria in excelsis” portion of the mass ordinary. Handel’s virtuosic treatment of the solo voice in the joyous outer movements is noteworthy, as is the highly expressive “Qui tollis,” which makes vivid with tortuous chromatic melodies the “sins of the world.” Because the Gloria lacks a free-standing overture, we have simply borrowed one in the same key from the same composer: the three-movement sequence that introduces Esther (1718), Handel’s first English-language oratorio. ©Matthew Dirst