Baroque at its Best: A Seasoned Configuration does Ernen Proud

Wrapped in white tarps and heavily scaffolded, Ernen’s lovely parish church St. Georg might easily be mistaken today for a Christo intervention, and entitled something like “Wrapped Church.” But no, not quite. For while the 16th century sanctuary was reconfigured into a neo-Gothic style church in 1860, and underwent total renovation in the mid-1960s, that “face-lift” has been its only major intervention since. Now, its roof and façade are being repaired and re-plastered, thus: the wrapped “Christo look.”

Given St. Georg’s parish history and its superb Baroque choir and altars, there are few sites better in which to stage a period concert. Undeniably, too, the Baroque weeks are at the “heart “ of the Musikdorf Ernen festival. The players come from a variety of backgrounds, their loyalty to the Ernen music weeks, long since proven. As in other years, Ada Pesch, Concertmaster at the Zurich opera and its superb Baroque orchestra, La Scintilla, takes the first seat here. And she slated a three-concert week of that genre ehoe repertoire pointed to the consummate skills of the various instruments.

The evening’s first piece was by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, a Venetian cellist whose composition was indebted to that of Vivaldi and Corelli. His Concerti a quarto da chiesa op 2. in G minor began with a Largo that showed off the beauty of Mike Fentoss’s theorbe, the lute’s close relative, while the spritely Allegro e spiritoso saw the first violin infecting us with light-hearted vivaciousness. The Grave − like its name − featured long and sustained bow work that was both mellow and gutsy; the final Allegro was effervescent and light, and made an uplifting ending to the 1712 piece.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in A Minor, RV 499 began with a phrase that might have been scripted for a stalking scene in a movie, but soon showed the more jolly, even humorous profile of the often-underestimated orchestra member: the bassoon. Benny Aghassi showed virtuoso fingering, and embellished his work with superb variations in intonation. For me, there’s always something a little humorous, even Falstaff-ian, about the bassoon’s lower register, and accordingly, the Largo felt like a burly beast making a case for itself as an actor. Aghassi’s mastery of technique and the accompanying Baroque guitar’s counter melodies (Mike Fentross) made this a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Mezzosoprano Maite Beaumont sang five different, highly animated arias in the course if the evening, three by the Italian composer Francesco Gasparini, − the teacher who was Domenico Scarlatti’s teacher, − and two works by Georg Friedrich Handel. In the first three, the singer was boosted by singularly melodic orchestration, the solo violin picking up some of the same themes the singer embellished with her well-rounded vocal skills. Beaumont’s Cor nemico, amante core showed the greatest animation of the three, although the singer was somewhat inhibited in her body movements, keeping her upper arms tightly braced and close to her body, and forfeiting some of the freedom that she might have enjoyed and imparted otherwise.

Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz was a Spanish harpist who largely composed for the lute and guitar. His Panavbas and Xacaras were flawlessly played by harpist Siobhán Armstrong, accompanied by Mike Fentross, although for me, there was less here of the variation in color that that I heard from the other instruments. I was glad for the nuances of volume that gave the selections more heft and handle.

After the break, the chamber works by Georg Friedrich Handel included the brilliant Trio Sonata in C minor for two violins and basso continuo, which I found the highlight of the evening. Violinist Monika Baer took a stunning lead, steering the work from its plaintive work to the spirited second movement, in which an animated cembalo (Francesco Corti) and the violin played off and around one another like two agile dancers. The strings set the tone of a kind of precious sentimentality that any Handel fan knows to love. It was sheer bliss, acoustically, though, somehow illuminating the Baroque church with its instrumental push-pull and golden resonance. Ada Pesch also gave greater dimension to the work with her animated full-body expression, and Deirdre Dowling’s viola, Catherine Jones’s cello, and Paolo Zuccheri’s double bass all shone like even more Baroque gold from the podium.

Maite Beaumont finished the program with two selections by Handel. Scherza infida is the sublimely tragic aria from the opera, “Ariodante,” that comes after the lead character learns that his lover has betrayed him. In his consummate sorrow and despair, he sings: “Betrayed by you, I go to embrace death.” Beaumont nicely imparted the utter devastation of such a loss, and was accompanied by a rich bassoon that simply yanked at the heart strings. What’s more, her final “Dopo Notte,” lifted us with its resplendent pageantry of a virtuoso coloratura, one which beautifully complemented the splendor of the Baroque decoration behind her in the church.

Ernen, 22 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet