The slushy flurries in New York on Friday prompted a blizzard of Tweets and Facebook statuses quoting Prince’s 1986 song, “Sometimes it Snows in April.” When the wintry mix subsided into a blissfully sunny and warm weekend, it seemed vaguely preposterous to spend one of those days in not one but two concert halls. Still, there was no better way to celebrate what may finally be spring than with music by Handel and Schubert. An off-kilter cocktail, to be sure, but the combination of the two gave way to a balance that our lithium-starved weather could certainly use.
While headliners Dorothea Röschmann and David Daniels were enough to fill Stern Auditorium, a major draw of their all-Handel program was the Carnegie Hall debut of Juilliard415, the eponymous school’s period-instrument ensemble that was founded in 2009 and has had significant champions in Jordi Savall and William Christie. Under violinist Monica Huggett and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, the group had flashes of brilliance and promise. Despite some jitters throughout the afternoon, usually leaving tempi somewhat scattered, the orchestra gradually warmed up as it gained its Stern legs.
In an eye-popping, fire-engine-red dress, the German soprano also took some time to get into her Handelian groove. Blooming gradually, she shone in Rodelinda’s plaintive, moving lament “Se’il mio duol.” Later, she assumed a seductive and regal bearing worthy of Cleopatra herself in “V’adoro pupile” from Giulio Cesare. David Daniels, a much-loved countertenor who earned a warm reception as he took the stage, was consistently satisfying. Physically, he was also entertaining to watch. Like a baroque Elvis, he shook, rattled and rolled during Radamisto’s “Perfido, di a quell’empio tiranna.”
It was together that these two clarion-voiced singers were at their best. Her lustrous soprano was matched in heft by his countertenor and they were so in sync with one another you’d think their voices were welded. In a duet from Sosarme, “Per le porte del tormento passan l’anime,” (“Through the portals of anguish we must pass to find joy”…an apt metaphor for this winter) Röschmann in particular struck several thrilling notes, most notably on “del tormento.” Equally breathless were Daniels’s ornamentations, reasserting his place among the top Handelian countertenors. Both were possibly at their best in a trio of formidable encores, Röschmann singing the familiar “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo, Daniels taking on Partenope’s “Ch'io parta? Sì, crudele,” and the two joining one last time for the glorious closing duet, “Pur ti miro,” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
If, as Sosarme goes, the anguished laments in the first half of the Röschmann-Daniels concert gave way to joy, the opposite can be said for Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, performed by tenor Matthew Polenzani and pianist Julius Drake at Alice Tully Hall. The bird-like hum of more than a few hearing aids paused the song cycle towards the beginning, but Polenzani good-naturedly sang over any non-musical noise with his pure and ardent tenor, accompanied stylishly and sympathetically by Drake. Though graying at the temples, Polenzani was still nothing but youthful and fervent, vocally channeling Schubert’s verdant landscape. At one point in “Ungeduld” (“Impatience”), he made it to the front of the stage, ready to burst on the repeated line “My heart is yours.” Suddenly regaining self-consciousness at his declarations, he blushingly sank back into the piano’s embrace. One may as well call him Matthew Bold-enzani.
Recent recordings of Schubert’s tale about a mill worker who kills himself over the unrequited love of his boss’s daughter have focused on establishing an element of foreshadowing in the first half. These ten songs set up our hero in his new profession and with the newfound object of his affections.
Full with lush imagery of a babbling brook and a tender moment between the miller and his maid, there is little storm explicitly indicated in the text. Often now we see the dark potential of the central character from the onset, lending credibility to his rash actions at the cycle’s close. Here, however, Polenzani (an accomplished actor in operatic roles, particularly at the Met) opted to give us an innocent soul caught up in the throes of passion, even choosing to believe blindly in his love when his rival appears in “Der Jäger.” In this context, the tragedy is amplified when he is ultimately heartbroken. Schubert’s suicidal miller is a rather ubiquitous presence on the art song scene, but Polenzani’s was one you wanted to rescue from the watery grave.