Arriving in Verizon Hall to find a recorder player, a couple of harpsichords, and all the string players stripped of their vibrato doesn’t automatically signal that you’re at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. But after inflating to its full self last week in Wagner, the orchestra slimmed down Friday afternoon for a program of early music.
It’s all relative. The orchestra’s idea of early music usually comes dressed in the velvety robes of rich orchestrations, like Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. Guest conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, though, made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut with the real thing, Purcell and Handel, and drew a sound from the ensemble that was half-rich and pungent.
The Music for the Royal Fireworks was familiar, of course, and yet it wasn’t. Often taken up by our modern orchestras, the work has acquired a pompous veneer -- broad tempos, full-throttle volume in places. Haïm brought subtlety. She bent the end of phrases ever so slightly in places and gave rhythms a snap. It was anything but stodgy.
The Royal Fireworks Music was bookended by two works of deep emotion. More than a dozen excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen functioned as a kind of concerto grosso, highlighting various aspects of the orchestra, and several with soprano Lenneke Ruiten. Sometimes the ensemble nearly disappeared. In one section, with Haïm on harpsichord, it was only cello, lute, and soprano, and Verizon Hall seemed to shrink down to chamber-music intimacy. When the strings entered, the entire textured warmed.
If you thought a sophisticated relationship between music and text didn’t start until Schubert, there was Purcell’s “O let me weep,” with cello, violin, and soprano to consider; even without knowing the title or words, the music speaks of solitude and loss.
Handel’s Il delirio amoroso (The Delirium of Love) also packed an emotional punch. In its first-ever performance by this orchestra, this cantata from Handel’s Italian years came across as a rather smart stroke of programming at the intersection of ensemble character and artistic growth for these musicians. Augmented by Sébastien Marq on recorders and lutenist Charles Weaver, the orchestra’s general sound was altered to be more lean and crisp than usual.
Handel’s score asks for great virtuosity, and it mostly got it. Concertmaster David Kim’s extended solo had some fine moments. Oboist Peter Smith was challenged by his leading role in the instrumental introduction, and, in the repeat, never quite recovered his authority. Cellist Priscilla Lee was a gorgeous, plaintive presence in her solo work.
Interestingly, Ruiten gathered strength and nuance as the piece went on. She’s the kind of soprano who sometimes makes you lean in, and when you do, there’s a lot going on -- details in color and phrasing, and the way she connects these qualities to the text.
More impressive still is Handel’s writing, a marriage of Italianate litheness and dark orchestral effects that cut surprisingly deep.