Two members of Les Inégales came down from the Northeast to the Washington Early Music Festival on Saturday night, bringing along contralto Imelda Franklin Bogue and viola da gamba player Anne Legêne for a program titled “Lover’s Quarrels” at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. The ensemble selected movements from instrumental works to introduce four vocal laments of tempestuous love, thus ensuring that one’s ears did not tire of any one combination of sounds or compositional style, and packed a whole lot of musical incident into 75 intermissionless minutes.
Both of the Inégalistes shone Saturday. Christine Gevert had the advantage of a fantastic harpsichord, sonorous yet tangy with overtones; the church’s diffuse acoustic blunted its twang a bit but could not disguise the incisiveness of her playing. Gevert drove Giovanni Felice Sances’ cantata “Usupator tiranno” forward at an implacable rhythm, mimicking the lover’s thought process and emphasizing the arresting dramatic turn when the rhythm suddenly shifted on the phrase “If you didn’t love me I wouldn’t adore you.” Gevert had the measure of more subtle accompaniment as well, imaginatively voicing her chords and keeping the rhythms light and springy. In her one solo piece, Michelangelo Rossi’s “Settima Toccata,” Gevert relished the free rhythms and the daring harmonies, piling up dissonances and chromatic runs towards the end of the piece like waves crashing on a shore.
St. George’s made Rodrigo Tarraza’s Baroque traverse flutes sound even cooler than normal; in quiet moments, the sound hung in the air like a spectre, making his playing in Francois Couperin’s “The Nightingale of Love” even more evocative. Tarraza carefully shaped the bird-inspired melodies, sounding completely different from the guy who so aggressively ornamented the Preludio movement from Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata in E minor (Op. 5, No. 8) that it earned him an appreciative, raised eyebrow from Legêne. Throughout the concert, he seemed to relish whatever style he was asked to essay; my favorite was his rendition of Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Sonata IV in G Major, Op. 2, full of daredevil runs yet always graceful in the melodies.
While Legêne held down her end of the continuo with a nice firm tone, she didn’t show quite as much individuality as Gevert and Tarraza. When she had the spotlight in Marin Marais’ Suite in A minor, the melodies never quite took flight, and in Jean-Marie Leclair’s Trio Sonata Op. 2, No. 8, which gives the gamba and flute equal melodic prominence, Tarraza’s flute made the gamba recede from the picture a little.
Bogue’s first couple songs sounded like a stream of vowels, as the church swallowed up her consonant sounds. It is a tribute to the songs themselves and Bogue’s sharp characterizations thereof that these performances still commanded attention. Bogue corrected the problem in her performance of “Dolce pur d’amor l’affanno,” an Italian cantata by George Frideric Handel (the most famous composer on the program by far), setting the stage for Handel’s “Mi palpita il cor”: the concert’s finale, its longest work, and the first piece on Saturday to feature all four musicians at once.
Here the group exploded into the opening section, whose one line of text translates as “My heart throbs, and I do not understand why,” with Gevert and Legêne attacking hard and Bogue soaring and swooping in a musical statement all the more powerful for its concision. When Handel gave them a whole aria and allowed Tarraza to join the fun, the passion became less concentrated but more richly detailed and expressive, Bogue lamenting in luminous voice above keen playing from the three instrumentalists. A fierce following recitative led to an even more expressive closing aria, contrasting the hope of contentment in love with the turmoil that had preceded it.
This climactic performance, not to mention all the well-chosen, expertly sequenced music that preceded it, fit perfectly this year’s WEMF theme, “Vices & Virtues — Passionate Music of Early Europe.” It also led to an unusual amount of applause from a grateful audience, one of whose members was moved to stand up and urge his cohort to bring someone folks half their age to the next festival concert they attended, to ensure the future of classical music. (Or something like that; I didn’t write it down.) I don’t know whether mere exposure can produce an affinity for this music, but a concert like the one Les Inégales presented Saturday would be the thing to do it.
It’s a nice laid-back atmosphere, in a neighborhood church somewhere near a Metro station, with people who really enjoy music both onstage and in the audience. You don’t have to dress up or know much about what you’re hearing — most of the audience hasn’t heard anything in these concerts before. Actually, they would be pretty awesome concerts to drag young people to, although I was probably half that dude’s age so who knows. Anyway, I cannot stress enough how much I look forward to WEMF concerts.