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Review: David Daniels with the English Concert

March 25, 2009 |  2:00 pm


The battle of the bands did not go so far as theorbos at 10 paces.  It’s a good thing too.  Those strikingly tall 17th century lutes could probably make decent weapons. And frankly, the outcome of a match between London’s two best-known period instrument groups, both of which appeared in Southern California in recent days, wouldn’t have been pretty.

Under its burly music director, Richard Egarr, the Academy of Ancient Music, which played Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos on Friday in Orange County, is a band of bruisers.  Dressed in black, they attacked Bach with raw, macho, exhilarating power and not a lot of finesse.  The AAM’s theorbo player strummed furiously, rocking the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall as if he were the Bruce Springsteen of the long lute.

The English Concert, now led by Harry Bicket, a popular opera conductor, came to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday.  There was a theorbo to be seen but not to be heard, so delicately was this lute plucked.  But the player fit right in with the formal, polite ensemble, whose members sported white ties and tails.  Bach, on the first half of the program, was played as if it were fragile musical china set out for teatime.  Handel, after intermission, had more drama.

From a purely instrumental point of view, I would recommend that if the English Concert encounters the AAM gang walking down the street, they meekly get out of the way as quickly as they can.  But the Concert had a secret weapon Tuesday that led to its being a nearly perfect rival of the AAM.  Bicket brought along countertenor David Daniels.

Wearing a fashionable fitted suit, looking buff, with beard and hair carefully styled, Daniels is these days the strangest of singers: a macho-seeming countertenor, a tough guy with a voice in a woman’s range. The singer’s presence was partly to help promote the Concert’s new Bach recording with Daniels, but it also signaled a new direction for the ensemble.  Since taking the reins last year, Bicket has substantially increased the Concert’s participation in vocal music and opera, which are his specialty.

Bach’s First Orchestral Suite began the program.  Unlike the AAM’s brass-knuckled Bach -- which used a single instrument per part, tuned low and weirdly, and which boldly let the horns rip (and crack) –- the Concert treated the composer with kid gloves.  Violins played sweetly in tune.  Baroque oboes and bassoon blended blandly.  Bicket conducted from the harpsichord -- a delicate model unlike Egarr’s monster.

Daniels, who has been growing as a Handel singer musically and theatrically, isn’t an especially adept Bachster himself.  Switching to a small organ, Bicket led him smoothly in excerpts from the B-minor Mass and the “St. Matthew Passion. “Schlummert ein” (Slumber Now) from the cantata “Ich habe genug” (It Is Enough) conjured peaceful sleep but not existential weariness.

The Handel half began with the Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 11, with first violinist Nadja Zwiener handily dispatching the hop-and-skip solos.  Daniels sang arias from three Handel operas.  On the opera stage, he is a singer who reacts strongly to his surroundings.  Often I have thought he was skimming character and music, as he did with the Bach.  But when given an aggressive director and probing conductor, he can go deep.

In his Handel arias, he went about midway, which was not unsatisfying.  He spared little in “Furibondo” (Furious) from “Partenope” and proved impressive for his breast-beating fury.  In the mad scene from “Orlando,” he demonstrated the range and a few limitations of his countertenor.  He loses power in the lower register, but he has never sounded fuller or more confident higher up.

A mind doesn’t fall apart easily on the concert stage, and the opening chaos of the mad scene was under more control than it might have been in a production of “Orlando,” but the ghostly aria “Vaghe pupille” (Lovely Eyes) hovered beatifically between sense and insubstantiality.  As an opera accompanist, Bicket finally came to life with his sensitivity to dramatic subtlety.

The encore, “Qual nave smarrita” (Like a Lost Ship), came from Handel’s “Radamisto.”  It was intensely, winningly sung, and for the repeat of its first section, Daniels turned and sang to the audience behind him.  I had not seen a singer do that in Disney.  I hope more will follow this one's gracious lead.    

-- Mark Swed

Photo:  Countertenor David Daniels appears with Harry Bicket and the English Consort at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times