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MUSIC REVIEW

From intimate to grand

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - Do performances come in sizes? It's fuzzy math, and bigger isn't necessarily better: Small can mean exquisite, while grand might just be grandiose. Saturday's concert of Baroque repertoire by Dominique Labelle and Michael Chance - along with, making their Boston Early Music Festival debut, local stalwarts the Sarasa Ensemble - was interesting in how, with only four players and two singers, it ranged from polished miniature to operatic extra-large.

The first half featured Handel and Purcell, both composers men of the theater, but the performances were more objective or intimate than theatrical. While Handel's cantata "Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi" provided Labelle and Chance with floridly romantic opportunities, both music and singing were more elegant than torrid. Still, the combination clicked: Labelle curbed her rich soprano to match Chance's softer-edged countertenor, but their sentient, nuanced phrasing gave the music movement and sheen.

In three arias from Purcell's "The Fairy Queen," Chance married exemplary diction to a gentle, inward timbre, an approach particularly effective in "See, even Night," evening falling with a preternatural stillness. Purcell's instrumental C-minor Sonata No. 9 (Z. 798) showed similar close focus, both tonally - violinists Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata adopting a wiry, period sound - and formally, harpsichordist Maggie Cole and cellist Timothy Merton quietly framing the music's steady momentum and dancing vigor.

For Handel's first keyboard Suite, Cole created more personal intimacy, the Prelude's loose arpeggiation prompting an exploratory rhythmic flexibility. But in two duets from Handel's "Teseo," Labelle and Chance began to embrace a less reserved style.

After intermission, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" received a substantial vocal conception from both singers - sacred as it may be, Pergolesi's famous vision of Mary at the foot of the cross unfolds with the expressively lapidary drama of opera. Labelle unleashed full power in her first aria, "Cujus animam gementum"; Chance revealed ringing force in his final aria, "Fac ut portem." Lean, spectral tone was a choice rather than a stylistic stipulation, as in Labelle's reading of Pergolesi's wilting, gasping portrayal of Christ's death. What made the performance operatic wasn't just the dramatic necessity or even the more extroverted quality; it was the going for broke, singers and players exchanging precision mapping for risky adventure. The landscape's big enough for both.

SARASA ENSEMBLE Timothy Merton, artistic director

Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

At: First Church in Cambridge, Saturday

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