How rare to be able to say that a concert was perfect in every way—programming, soloist, balance, precision, musicianship, style, dynamics, pitch, phrasing, nuance, and so on.
Pacific MusicWorks hit this jackpot Sunday afternoon at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Even the acoustics in this hall, which can be problematic with modern instruments playing in high registers, were just right for this concert of Handel’s music with period instruments and a tenor soloist, Aaron Sheehan.
The focus for the program was the music Handel wrote for his favorite tenor, John Beard. Sheehan and Stephen Stubbs, artistic director for Pacific MusicWorks, chose arias and recitatives composed in the earlier years of Beard’s collaboration with Handel, starting when the tenor was just 20 in 1736 with music from the oratorio “Alexander’s Feast,” and ending when Beard was 26 with a group of arias from the oratorio “Samson,” though Beard continued to work with and for Handel throughout the composer’s life.
Sheehan is the ideal tenor for this music. Steeped in the Baroque literature and style, he and Stubbs won a Grammy Award in 2015 for their performance of a chamber opera by the seventeenth-century composer Charpentier, and both had been nominees before that.
Giving Sheehan a brief rest in this remarkable feat of stamina—seventeen arias and several recitatives leading up to them—the concert also included a couple of Handel’s Concerti Grossi, both in B-Flat: Op 3, No. 2, with the plangent sound of two Baroque oboes and bassoon; the second Op. 6, No. 7, without oboes. These were played with style and panache and a delight to hear, but the main focus of the program was of course the vocal music.
As well as the aforementioned, Sheehan sang arias from the oratorios “Israel in Egypt,” “Saul” and “Messiah,” and from the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, culminating in the group of arias and recitatives from “Samson” at the end.
Given the concentration of arias, rather than with choruses, other solos or orchestral interludes in the piece, it was possible to experience Samson’s progression of feelings through Sheehan’s interpretation. Thus, he portrayed Samson’s spirit despairing and depressed in “Total Eclipse,” as he bemoans his blindness, followed as he gears up to fight in a recitative “My grief for this,” and then a call to rise up in “Why does the God of Israel sleep?” which is imbued with bristling force. We then heard his disillusion with Delilah: “Your charms to ruin led the way”, his inspiration and prayer for strength and lastly, “Thus when the sun, from’s wat’ry bed” which begins with furious skittering from the orchestra and ends with a peaceful lyricism. The musical eloquence in Sheehan’s voice (which came through in all the other arias performed as well) made this so real, telling a story.
Once could hear every word he sang, his tone always clear and seemingly effortless, even in the many fast runs, sometimes with even faster ornamentation, at others with long held notes phrased with artistry.
Very few of the arias performed at the concert are familiar to most listeners. We hear the “Messiah” music all the time, but all of Handel’s other oratorios, not to mention his operas, have equally gorgeous music, so this taste of what is out there and relatively unexplored makes one wish for more. Luckily this program was recorded last week at Bastyr Chapel, for a CD which will come out this summer. It’s going to be one to look forward to.