Early music, elegantly pitched
Early-music groups can have varied ambitions. Some emphasize the past’s mysterious distance; some make the past prophetically up to date. Some evoke rusticity; some conjure lavish architecture. But in their Sunday performance at Jordan Hall, jointly presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston and the Boston Early Music Festival, the English Concert revealed themselves as a kind of museum of musical industry, displaying expressive manufactures of the Baroque; the more ingenious the wares, the more flair with which they offered them.
Appropriately, the concert showcased that paragon of ingenuity, Henry Purcell, an exemplar of concurrent English virtues: diligence, grace, eccentric panache. Purcell was forever making melodies double as sound effects; take the Overture to “King Arthur,’’ trumpets calling the troops to colors, the same tune rustling through the strings like a volley of arrows, rumbling like hooves in the bass instruments. Or the “Dance for the Followers of Night,’’ from “The Fairy Queen,’’ a steady, slithering advance of strings and tambourine.
The ensemble, directed by Harry Bicket and numbering but 13 (including Bicket’s keyboards), was advantageously lean and transparent but also technically accomplished enough to risk such no-place-to-hide dimensions. They seemed nonchalantly drawn toward every opportunity for heightened color and creative scenery. (They knew it, too: Sly smiles proliferated at every particularly nimble turn of phrase.) Additional works by Heinrich Biber - his Sonata à 6 (C. 109) - and Georg Muffat were equally opportunistic. In the Muffat, a Passacaglia from his “Armonico Tributo,’’ as the polyrhythms became more idiosyncratic, the group swung all the harder.
The featured soloist was countertenor Andreas Scholl. His instrument is exquisitely consistent, a soft-edged tone focused to a fluent beam. Often, that was enough; Dido’s lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas’’ was remarkable, a scroll of unfurling satin. But Scholl, like the players, also seized illustrative possibilities, whether making effervescent work of the word “kiss’’ in “Sweeter Than Roses,’’ or a trilled-r, shuddering plunk for the repeated “drop’’ of snakes from a Fury’s head in “Music for a While.’’ The song of the “Cold Genius’’ from “King Arthur’’ was especially fine, Scholl and the ensemble pushing the shivering stutter of the music to a sophisticated pantomime extreme.
That was the main thrust of the afternoon: elegantly pitched product demonstrations of the era’s penchant for ravishing cleverness. For an encore, Scholl and the band reprised Purcell’s most languid commercial: “Music, for a while,’’ the song goes, “shall all your cares beguile.’’ Truth in advertising, really.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.