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L’Arabesque Baroque offers delicately seasoned music at D.C. cathedral

By Stephen Brookes,

Early music can be flavorful stuff, as L’Arabesque Baroque — a small ensemble of early-music specialists from the D.C. area — demonstrated Thursday night in a concert titled “Divine Earthly Passions: Roses and Coffee.” The roses came courtesy of Handel in his aria “Flammende Rose” HWV 210, while Bach brewed up the caffeine in “Ei! Wie Schmeckt der Coffee Susse,” from the much-loved Coffee Cantata, BMV 211. Both were delicious, but some of the most delicately seasoned music of the evening came from less familiar composers — including a fascinating set of variations for solo theorbo by the Italian composer Alessandro Piccinini.

The concert (the third in the ongoing Washington Early Music Festival, which continues through this month) opened with the Trio Sonata in D, Op. 7 No. 1, by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. It’s a piece that overflows with lightness and wit, and it gave flutist Barbara Spicher a chance to display her playful, imaginative personality and impressive mastery of the one-keyed wooden flute — an almost impossible instrument to play, as anyone who has tried it will attest.

But it quickly became clear that the enormous Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle was a cruel venue for such a small group; every note reverberated in the cathedral’s cavernous maw, obliterating details and turning delicate harmonies to soup. The ensemble made the best of things; soprano Polly Edmonds Baldridge, who has a lovely voice, kept her singing small-scaled and engagingly natural so as not to overpower the ensemble, while William Simms on theorbo turned in a tightly focused reading of the Piccinini variations. The most absorbing moments of the evening, though, came in Marin Marais’s Suite in D Minor. Douglas Wolters on viola da gamba led the ensemble through a riveting account of this fascinating, introspective work, playing with exceptional eloquence and understanding.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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