By Philippa Kiraly
I first heard soprano Julianne Baird singing Baroque arias around a quarter century ago. I thought her voice was perfect then, but now, maturity has added more depth to a rich purity of sound making hearing her an experience not readily forgotten.
Baird was performing with Gallery Concerts at Queen Anne Christian Church Saturday and Sunday in the opening weekend of this month’s Handel Festival. Together with harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, violinist Tekla Cunningham and gamba player Margriet Tindemans, and a delightful lecture prior to the concert by George Bozarth, the concert gave a fine sampling of Handel’s oratorical and operatic activities punctuated by instrumental works.
Baird sang arias in English from the oratorios “Joshua” and “Semele,” including from the former the best known of the works she sang, “O! Had I Jubal’s Lyre,” and others from the operas “Radamisto,” Rodelinda,” and Lotario.” These are just a sprinkling from the more than 40 operas and 20 oratorios which came from Handel’s fertile mind, though many may have had arias recycled from previous works.
It was a fascinating juxtaposition to have heard, Friday, Handel and contemporary arias sung at the SSO’s “Songs of Cleopatra” program by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and then Baird two days later: very different voices, each persuasive in the literature.
The immediate impression created by Baird, was the ease with which she sang. These arias are florid, fast and complex, and range all over the map vocally and dynamically.
Baird accomplished the long melismatic runs and the trills of variable speeds like a hummingbird’s hoverings, sounding so relaxed she could give her all to the emotional content.
Perhaps her most memorable performance was her second aria, “”O, Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” from “Semele.” Anyone who suffers from insomnia could have related to the anguish she portrayed in Handel’s exquisite music.
She was ably abetted by the instrumentalists who each had a moment to the fore. Tindemans, herself a major international figure in early music, is often heard here supporting other players, so it was a pleasure to hear her performance of the Sonata in A minor, HWV 346b. Dupree played an aria from “Rinaldo” arranged for harpsichord by William Babell, and three pieces from the Suite in G minor, HWV 432, and Cunningham performed the Sonata in F major. I don’t know if Cunningham had had to replace her E string at the last moment, but unlike her lower strings which had warmth to them, the top one sounded raw and shiny, as though not played in yet.
Throughout, the performers read excerpts from contemporary writings on Handel’s performances or performers. Before her “Rinaldo” arrangement, Dupree read from Charles Burney’s comparison of these arrangements and vocal performance of the same, in which Burney gave backhanded comments on the harpsichord’s emotional range as compared to the nuances of the latter. Without any disparagement of Dupree’s fine performance, after hearing Baird, one had to agree in spades.