Musica Pacifica is an early music ensemble based in San Francisco that was founded in 1990. Since then they have built up an impressive catalog of performances concentrating primarily on the pre-Classical repertoire; and their library of recordings has enjoyed a variety of awards on both a national (WQXR) and international (Alte Musik Aktuell) scale. This past Friday Navona Records released their latest album, Mi Palpita Il Cor: Baroque Passions.
The instrumentalists on this recording are Judith Linsenberg (recorders), Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Josh Lee (gamba), John Lenti (theorbo and guitar), and Charles Sherman (harpsichord). However, the title of the album is also that of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 132 cantata, which he composed in London, even though the text is in Italian. The title translates as “I feel my heart beating;” and it is one of three cantatas about a “passionate heart” that are included on the recording. The others are Agostino Steffani’s Guardati, i core (guard my heart) and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Orphée. The vocalist is soprano Dominique Labelle.
These cantatas are separated by instrumental selections. The first of these is the sixth (in the key of B minor) of twelve sonatas that Giuseppe Sammartini published as his Opus 1. These were also written in London and dedicated to Frederick, Prince of Wales. The second comes from the second set of Georg Philipp Telemann’s so-called “Paris” quartets, scored for flute, violin, gamba or cello, and continuo. The selection is the G major quartet in the collection, TWV 43:G4.
The overall “program” is thus a journey through three different perspectives on individual passion, interleaved with chamber music selections that dwell on the virtuosity of the recorder. Indeed, the scare quotes may not be necessary, since it is entirely possible that this album grew out of a recital program that Music Pacifica had prepared when they could be joined by Labelle as guest artist. One thing that I have discovered about such recitals (which make for a generous share of my past listening history) is that, even when text sheets and translations are available, I tend to set them aside in favor of the rhetorical devices exercised by the composer, which often end up saying more than the words can express. This is frequently the case where Handel is involved. Both his cantatas and his operas tend to cover a range of emotions, whose contrasting elements are more evident from the music than from any of the texts he happens to be following.
Labelle brings a solid appreciation of the capabilities of all three cantata composers for such expressiveness. There is a clarity to her delivery that leads the attentive listener through unfolding changes in rhetoric, treating the overall cantata basically as a landscape of emotional contexts. That clarity, of course, owes much to the chamber setting, in which the voice is on the same level as any of the instrumental solo lines. In the Handel cantata this is particularly evident in the ways in which voice and recorder interleave as their contrapuntal relationship unfolds.
These recordings were all made by Swineshead Productions (David v.R. Bowles’ production company) in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere (California). Those in the Bay Area know this church as the “birthplace” of American Bach Soloists; so it has a long-standing history as an acoustic space conducive to pre-Classical music. That space has certainly served the performances on this album well, affirming that Musica Pacifica remains one of the most interesting ensembles available on recording for those interested in early music.