Richard Egarr served as both conductor and harpsichordist (soloist and continuo) at last night’s Philharmonia Baroque subscription concert at Herbst Theatre. Egarr is Christopher Hogwood’s successor as Music Director of the Academy on Ancient Music, a post he assumed in 2006. He prepared a program of music from the English Baroque period spanning over a century from a chamber consort by William Lawes probably dating from 1635 up to a very familiar selection by George Frideric Handel, first performed in 1749.
Egarr is a highly personable individual, who provided informative remarks for each of the compositions he had selected for his program. He may have pushed the joke about the German Handel being the most British composer of the English Baroque period, but he was most helpful where the lesser known composers were concerned. It is unclear that a conductor was really required for the Lawes piece, which was scored for two string trios primarily engaged in antiphonal exchanges. However, he may have been responsible for enhancing the effects by having the trios face each other, with Lisa Weiss, Maria Ionia Caswell, and Phoebe Carrai on the left and Lisa Grodin, Ellie Nishi, and William Skeen on the right. It was also helpful for him to suggest that the opening fantasia movement may have been a reflection on the unrest leading up to the English Civil War. Lawes served as a soldier for Charles I when war broke out, and he died in battle in 1645.
What was most interesting about the lesser-known selections was the somewhat coarser quality that contrasts with what we associate with both Italian and German practices of the time. Arne’s harpsichord concerto abounds with deceptive cadences, almost erratic phrases, and gruff high-energy demands on the soloist. Egarr hurled himself into this rhetorical context with great vigor, first warming up the orchestra as conductor and then merrily galumphing his way through the solo work. The whole affair was as refreshing as it was challenging to one’s usual expectations. Many of those ensemble qualities could also be found in the incidental music Matthew Locke composed for a performance of The Tempest, particularly in the abrupt mood shifts of the opening “Curtain Tune” depiction of both calm and stormy seas.
Egarr brought us to more familiar ground with a suite of instrumental selections from Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. He explained that these were his personal favorites; and that is how he conducted them, offering particularly energetic readings of the dance selections. I am surprised that Scott Foglesong’s notes for the program book did not notice that the concluding “Dance for a Chinese Man and Woman” in the form of a chaconne used a theme that could be traced back to “La Folia.” Since A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the purported source for The Fairy Queen, had no Chinese characters, it seemed perfectly consistent that Purcell would have them dance to Spanish music.
Most of the program, however, was dominated by Handel. The evening was framed with oratorio selections, beginning with the overture to Saul (in the form of a four-movement symphony) and concluding with the familiar “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon. That final selection was preceded by the D minor concerto grosso that is the fifth of the Opus 3 compositions. Egarr observed that this is more a concerto for the entire string ensemble, rather than a work for selected soloists within that ensemble.
Throughout the evening Egarr made his mark with lively interpretations. He was both comfortable and capable in the period practice of performing while conducting. His rapport with the ensemble was good, although intonation seemed to be a bit more ragged than usual. However, this may have been a side effect of Egarr’s energetic personality; and the evening proceeded at a brisk pace that well suited its diverse breadth of offerings.