As much as interest in early music performance has grown significantly since the 1950s, music of the French Baroque still remains the neglected stepchild in the U.S.A. Papa Bach and G. F. Handel have become household names, but Jean-Phillipe Rameau–their Gallic counterpart–remains as obscure as ever.
Friday’s performance (Jan. 10) by tenor Aaron Sheehan and Musica Pacifica for the San Diego Early Music Society made a winning case for Rameau and his distinctly French Baroque style. Unlike Monteverdi’s groundbreaking Orfeo, where the Orpheus myth is portrayed with epic operatic gestures, Rameau’s solo cantata “Orphée” gives us the tale in first person narration that suggests the intimacy of a personal confession to Oprah Winfrey.
Sheehan sang with unflagging dramatic urgency, caressing the French text to release its panoply of emotional shadings. Although Rameau’s continuous arioso style of text setting—the effusive melisma is quite rare and drama is more implied than demonstrated—Sheehan’s nuanced attention to detail warded off the threat of monotony. A baritonal warmth in his mid-range and bell-like purity at the top proved an ideal match for this repertory, at least in my book.
A seasoned early music ensemble, the four players of Musica Pacifica brought their limpid, unmannered touch to
Rameau’s rippling textures, keeping the primacy of the vocal line in clear perspective. In their Rameau solo instrumental offering, the “Third Concert in A Major” from the celebrated collection Pièces de Clavecin en concert, Musica Pacifica became more extroverted, allowing the composer’s playful side to take center stage. From Charles Sherman’s fleet harpsichord touch to Josh Lee’s energizing bass lines, each movement unfolded with effervescent ease. Judith Lisenberg overcame the dull timbre of the Baroque recorder with highly detailed articulations and subtle phrasing, while Elizabeth Blumenstock’s violin figurations suggested constant invention without a hint of indulgent showmanship.
In addition to this Rameau feast, Sheehan sang Handel’s “Look Down, Harmonious Saint,” a rarely performed English-language solo cantata intended to celebrate the patron saint of music, St. Cecelia. In addition to carrying out the expected florid runs with ease, Sheehan articulated the text with uncommon clarity. I mention this, because far too many vocalists render the English language in song as if it were Urdu. He closed with a pair of arias extracted from J.S. Bach sacred canatas, which gave him occasion to exegete exuberantly the composer’s earnest theological subtext.[php snippet=1]
A Handel Overture and a Telemann “Concert a quattro” allowed Musica Pacifica to flex its muscles in more sinewy German counterpoint.