CSO’s Baroque gems with Bicket a rare treat

Countertenor Iestyn Davies joined Harry Bicket and the CSO in a rare Baroque concert at Music Hall. Photo provided by CSO/Kayla Moore

Harry Bicket’s Baroque concert of Handel and Rameau brought a breath of fresh air to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra over the weekend.

A glance at the program told the story of how rare it was to hear these Baroque gems in Music Hall. Every single piece on the program – even Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 11 – was being performed by the orchestra for the first time.

And there was no better partner in this repertoire than the superb British countertenor Iestyn Davies, who made his Cincinnati debut in arias from Handel operas. Davies is one of a new generation of countertenors now making international waves.

Davies and Bicket — who is artistic director of the fine period orchestra, The English Concert — recently performed Handel’s “Rinaldo” in London, Seville, Madrid and at Carnegie Hall. And for a change of pace, Davies has just finished a run on Broadway in “Farinelli and the King.”

So what a treat it was, the program’s second half, to hear Davies perform two arias from Handel’s first opera for London, “Rinaldo.”  The lament, “Cara sposa” (My dear betrothed) was pure-toned and deeply expressive. In the hero’s very quick “Venti turbine” (Whirling winds),  in which Rinaldo implores the heavens to return his abducted beloved, he sang brilliant florid passages in tandem with the bassoon (William Winstead).

In the first half, the countertenor made a glorious case for three arias from Handel’s “Partenope.”  The first, “Sento amor,” impressed for the singer’s warmth, control and beauty of line. “Ch’io parta,” a despairing love song, had the intimate accompaniment of harpsichord and theorbo, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall. The third, “Furibondo spira il vento,” was a tour-de-force of flourishes for both the soloist and the orchestra.

Bicket has visited the Queen City once before, to lead the May Festival in 2017. He opened his program with a Suite from the opera “Platée” by Rameau, an often overlooked but imaginative French Baroque composer. A reduced Cincinnati Symphony was onstage, augmented by harpsichord (CCM professor Michael Unger), theorbo (John Lenti) and a wind machine.

The conductor led invigorating performances in the “historically informed” style, with the strings playing with short bows and little vibrato. It worked exceedingly well in Music Hall’s new acoustic; however, it was often hard to hear the harpsichord and the unique timbre of the theorbo. (You can read more about this early instrument in my article here for Early Music America.)

“Orage” from “Platée” was a frenzied opener, briskly played against the wind machine. The ensuing dance movements were buoyant; I enjoyed the ornaments and vivid dynamics. In the Rigaudons, enlivened by tambourine, you could almost envision the dancers.

Bicket led from the harpsichord in Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A Major, Op. 6 No. 11. It was a galvanizing performance, with clipped dotted rhythms, light articulation and fleet tempos.

Three musicians were featured as soloists: Acting associate concertmaster Kathryn Woolley, principal second violin Gabriel Pegis and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn. Woolley was given the lion’s share, and she tackled its challenges with an easy flair and considerable virtuosity.

In the second half, it was wonderful to hear Rameau’s Suite from his last opera “Les Boréades.” (Amazingly, the opera didn’t have its world premiere until 1982.) This was a wonderful example of the inventiveness and wit of the French composer. Its hallmarks included fanfares in the Overture for two horns (beautifully executed by Elizabeth Freimuth and Lisa conway), a lovely, pastoral “Air,” a Contredanse with side-drum, a stunning duo for piccolos and a dramatic “Entr’acte” with wind machine.

Bicket illuminated every detail, and the orchestra gave it a vivid reading.

For the finale, Davies returned to sing radiantly in arias from Handel’s “Rodelina” and “Orlando.” After enthusiastic ovations at both of the performances that I attended, he added a memorable encore:  “An Evening Hymn” by Henry Purcell.

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