Orchestra and Purcell: A delightful first encounter

British harpsichordist Richard Egarr led the ensemble.
British harpsichordist Richard Egarr led the ensemble. (MARCO BORGGREVE)
Posted: December 03, 2013

The all-time record for a long-awaited Philadelphia Orchestra debut by a major composer may well be held by Henry Purcell.

Though his opera Dido and Aeneas surfaces periodically, the baroque composer's 1692 The Fairy Queen was heard for the first time here on Friday with an added distinction: None of the musicians had ever played Purcell at all.

They had a resourceful tour guide in Richard Egarr, the British harpsichordist who led the first half of the concert from the keyboard with insight into and affection for the greatest British-born composer before Elgar. Hearing the six selections from The Fairy Queen, one marveled at the witty use of rhythm, lyrical sense of invention, and dip into pub humor in music that presents no barriers to the ears and heart. So why its absence?

This semi-opera Midsummer Night's Dream adaptation requires alternative expectations. Much of the music is for interludes, minor characters, and scene setting. No soul-searching Handelian soliloquies. Its intimate scale requires it to be heard microscopically.

I'd marveled at Jonathan Kent's Glyndebourne Festival staging of The Fairy Queen in recent years, so knew to expect strokes of genius rendered with the lightest of touches. As it was, Friday's selections offered glimpses of dreams woven by unimaginable fairies, as the Philadelphia players set aside their sonic identities to meet the music more than halfway.

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, which is encountered more often in elevators than in Verizon Hall, dominated the first half, though Egarr and violinist Giuliano Carmignola, a charismatic Baroque specialist, gave it anything but another run-though. The bare-bones scoring in the middle movement of the "Autumn" concerto, for example, was filled out by Egarr with harmonic richness that made the simple string writing feel smart and elegant.

With a 20-piece ensemble, soloist Carmignola gave the music an elemental speed and thrust non-specialists often lack. Instead of going for charm, color, and rustic effects, he projected qualities heard in the Vivaldi operas that have lately emerged: Musical imagery was feverishly emotional rather than visual. Each season had its own unstoppable edge.

Conducting Haydn's Symphony No. 101 from the podium, Egarr had the players speaking a foreign stylistic language with credibility, though not always confidence. Harmonic warmth heard in more traditional Haydn performances was replaced by a contrapuntal sensibility (much like Bach's Brandenburg Concertos) that showed the music's restless invention, abrupt coloristic changes occuring with even the smallest shifts in orchestration. Perhaps Friday's audience wanted more sensuality. But didn't we get enough of that a few weeks ago with Ein Heldenleben?


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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